Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilNuméros19.21. Relating / L’Écosse en relatio...The Question of the vis-à-vis: Sc...


L’altérité est l’essence même de l’identité. Il importe tout autant de comprendre ce que nous ne sommes pas que ce que nous pensons être. Les identités, qu’elles soient liées aux idées de nation, de classe, de genre ou de ‘race’, ne sont pas isolées, mais doivent être appréhendées dans le contexte de la relation à l’autre. Ainsi, le regain d’intérêt pour l’identité ‘anglaise’ s’est nourri du rejet de l’identité ‘européenne’ qui a été exacerbé lors du débat sur le Brexit, du référendum de 2016 et de la montée en puissance de l’aile droite du Parti conservateur en Angleterre. L’identité ‘écossaise’, par comparaison, s’est renforcée en opposition à cette évolution de l’identité anglaise : par voie de conséquence, les Écossais sont devenus plus ‘européens’.
Depuis le XIVe siècle au moins, les Écossais forment un peuple ‘métissé’, défini bien plus par son territoire et ses institutions que par des critères culturels ou ethniques. Ceci a engendré un sentiment identitaire fondé autant sur ce que les Écossais n’étaient pas (à savoir des Anglais) que sur ce qu’ils pensaient être (des Écossais). Il ne s’agit pas de nier l’existence d’une identité ‘britannique’, sauf si l’on considère que cette identification à l’État (britannique) s’est progressivement réduite à l’identité anglaise, comme illustré par la confusion entre l’idée même d’Angleterre et le vote favorable au Brexit (Leave) lors du référendum de 2016. Le vote massif contre le Brexit en Écosse peut alors être interprété comme l’affirmation d’une identité écossaise à l’échelle de l’institution comme à celle de l’individu. Depuis 2016, on assimile de plus en plus nettement le sentiment identitaire écossais, le vote contre le Brexit et le soutien à l’indépendance de l’Écosse au sein de l’Union européenne. De la même façon, pendant la pandémie de Covid-19 le gouvernement écossais a bénéficié d’une cote de confiance élevée tant au sein des partis que dans la société civile, confirmant ainsi que les identités nationales relèvent par essence de contingences matérielles plutôt que de seules émotions, et de la politique autant que de la culture. Tout dépend, au bout du compte, de la manière dont elles coexistent.

Haut de page

Texte intégral

Introduction: the vis-à-vis

  • 1 Describing people as white or non-white is a good example of implicit othering embedded in any soci (...)

1Who do you say you are? Even at the highly personal scale we tend to define ourselves in terms of who we are not. It is, in essence, a matter of distinguishing ourselves from others, in essence, of othering. In truth, we usually do not think of these others much, because we are fixated on our own selves, but it does not take much to delve below the surface in order to give an account of ourselves in terms of who we are not. In this paper I will consider the essence of othering in terms of being Scottish, and contrast it with similar processes with regard to larger nations who, arguably, rarely do such a thing, considering themselves sui generis. None of this is sociologically surprising, because the relatively powerful rarely adopt the vis-à-vis; they do not have to. Thus, men rarely consider their gender to be important to them, in contrast to women; the bourgeoisie are less aware of who they are not than their working-class others. Similarly, ‘white’ people1 do not consider themselves to be an ethnic group in contrast to non-white people. Their ‘whiteness’ lies simply in having fairer skin colouring than others; what the social anthropologist Michael Banton called phenotypical difference: thus, “No one has ever seen another person’s race. People perceive phenotypical differences of colour, hair form, underlying bone structure and so on” (Banton 16). Indeed, he continued:

In Britain, the English have regarded Scots, Welsh, Gujeratis, Afro-Caribbeans, Poles etc. as groups defined by ethnic attributes. They [the English] have not regarded themselves as possessing ethnicity, because, being the largest group and the dominant element in the population, there has been no pressure upon them to distinguish their group from the society as a whole. (Banton 17)

  • 2 I am reminded of the ironic doggerel by J.H.Goring (1909): ‘The Germans live in Germany/The Romans (...)

2When Frank Bechhofer and I carried out our research on national identity, we frequently encountered people who had migrated from England to Scotland telling us that they had not considered themselves ‘English’ until they came to Scotland. When Scots pointed out to them, politely, that they were ‘English’ (judged mainly by accent and cadences of speech), they were surprised; they had rarely thought of it before. Their point was that in England there was little sense in so doing because it was, for them, unproblematic2. Not so, it seems, for ‘non-white’ people who are much more likely to consider themselves ‘British’ not ‘English’; either because being ‘English’ was not something they were permitted to be nor, possibly, wished to be.

Terms of Reference

3Let us remind ourselves that there is no inherent meaning in the categories of ‘race’, ethnicity, gender, social class, in and of themselves; the essence lies in the relationships of which they are an integral part, and how these are interpreted. They do not stand alone. As antitheses, they are best thought of as the other side of their respective coins. Whether or not they are mobilised and made meaningful are matters of relative power. For the relatively powerful, it is sufficient to make othering implicit, except where it comes in handy for negative stereotyping. In truth, not articulating national identity can be a useful cultural weapon, a veiled threat; witness GK Chesterton’s ominous saw: ‘Smile at us, pay us, pass us; but do not quite forget/ For we are the people of England, that never have spoken yet’ (in The Secret People, 1915).

4It is significant that this verse re-emerged in the political-cultural discourse around the Brexit vote to leave the EU in 2016. This might seem strange, as if a nation, England, which is, after all, 85% of the UK population, had not written all the rules which mattered. The rest of us could be dismissed as ‘the Celtic fringe’; it is simply assumed that we inhabit ‘greater England’. And yet it has been more common to think the English unusual. Here is the sociologist Krishan Kumar, in his fine book, The Making of English Identity (2003: xv):

What a mystery the English are, to themselves and others. Unlike their continental neighbours, the French, Germans and Italians, or even their nearest neighbours, the Welsh, the Scots and the Irish, they have never established a strong sense of national identity. What is more, they have not shown much interest in inquiring, in a systematic way, into the character of themselves as a nation.

5For myself, I was never convinced by that argument, and our research on national identity, in England as well as Scotland, did not support Kumar’s contention. Our erstwhile colleague, Susan Condor (2010) pointed out that the reticence of the English to talk about national identity did not mean that they lacked an understanding as to what the concept meant. They were simply being careful lest they give offence. Indeed, subsequent political events, notably Brexit, showed the salience of being English, for the more ‘English’ people considered themselves to be, the more likely they were to vote Leave in the 2016 referendum (Explaining Brexit north and south of the border). Being English proved to be one of the strongest determinants of voting Leave, even when matters of social class, age, gender and education were taken into account. When we published our book Understanding National Identity in 2015, we conjectured that it was possible that “in ten years’ time [that is, in 2025] the important issues of ‘national identity’ in these islands will be construed as largely being ‘about’ England, rather than Scotland (or Wales and Northern Ireland, for that matter), whereas at present they are deemed to be about the so-called Celtic Fringe” (McCrone and Bechhofer 294). We were wrong: it came much sooner than that, for a year later, Brexit crystallised English national identity, and since then, English politics has been dominated by who ‘owns’ Englishness.

6And what has this to do with Scotland, and being Scottish? In truth, everything, because small nations are constantly aware of who they are not; hence, they are defined in terms of the vis-à-vis. To remain with our research on national identity, which we carried out in Scotland and England in order to get at how similar and/or different they were, we had little difficulty getting people to talk about being Scottish. They had well-practised riffs to hand, because they had to deal with assumptions, most obviously in the media, that there was a common – British – ‘we’, and they were aware that this was not so.

7In any case, terms like ‘the nation’ are ambiguous in a Scottish context, and more often used to mark out who ‘we’ are north of the border. It is, thankfully, no longer common practice to refer to the UK as ‘England’, at least on these shores, though the foreign press largely continues to commit that error. The prefix ‘Anglo’-(French/German/American etc.) is still in common use in media and political circles, and is a reflection of unthinking homogeneity used for cultural and political purposes. Indeed, one of the irksome features of reporting on covid-19 in the UK is the assumption of ‘British’ homogeneity, and instead of speaking of the UK as ‘England’, simply to invert that and speak of England as ‘the UK’, on the grounds that they are 85% of the British population, and hence can be ‘taken for’ the rest. You might reply that we are showing undue sensitivity, that ‘no offence is meant’, or ‘you know what they mean’, but it undoubtedly rankles, just as referring to human beings as ‘men’ as a convenience is quite unwarranted, and offensive to women. Language is bedevilled by gendering, and English-speakers are glad that our nouns do not require it (which makes learning French rather tricky; so much to remember and get wrong).

8My point, though, is a broader one, that numerical majorities usually assume homogeneity, and if challenged, assert ‘democratic majoritarianism’. I have never, for instance, in my years of sociological study, heard anyone in Scotland refer to Scots as an ‘ethnic minority’.

Making sense of Scotland

  • 3 I am partial to the account of the descriptive adjective ‘Great’ to refer to the big island as oppo (...)
  • 4 GBS was Irish, but might be thought of, rather, as a ‘West Brit’, a term, slightly mocking, referri (...)

9I have been studying Scotland, or rather its sociology for nigh on fifty years, which more or less overlaps with the lifetime of the Society for Scottish Studies, a pleasing correspondence. My early memories as a student were of encountering sociological studies of life in East London, or gang-life in Chicago, but virtually nothing on the society in which I lived. The assumption was that what sociologists meant by ‘society’ was simply the British state, which has an edge to it, which ‘Britain’ (Great or not3) or portentously, the ‘United Kingdom’ did not have. I guess that it was more common to find the term ‘the British state’ used by the inhabitants of Ireland, John Bull’s Other Island, as George Bernard Shaw (1904) referred to it4. In order to distance themselves from it, the term ‘the British state’ has been in common use on that other island since then, and especially post-1921 independence.

  • 5 See McCrone and Bechhofer (2015), chapter 8 for our discussion of Britishness.

10When I began in the 1970s, it was deemed ‘parochial’ to be interested in Scotland, that we were all British these days, certainly since so many had died ‘pro patria’ [mori] in the First and Second World Wars. I regret not having had a conversation with my parents about their national identities, being Scottish and British, but I guess that they thought of these in that order, Scottish first, but also British, but without giving much thought to both. After all, my relatives had fought in both world wars. My father’s brother was killed at Arras in 1917, and I was given his name, David, to carry in his memory during my lifetime. Being British was a matter of speaking, first and foremost, for my parents’ and grandparents’ generations, and it is fair to say that it has eroded but certainly not disappeared5.

  • 6 It was not an egregious error on Hume’s part. He was using ‘England’ in the generic sense of his po (...)
  • 7 The term ‘Brit’ seems to have become established in discourse in these islands, but arguably began (...)

11This readership needs no telling that ‘being Scottish’ had not disappeared either since the Union of 1707; we had not become simply ‘British’, still less ‘English’ in the interim, even though England and Britain were used almost as synonyms (for example, by David Hume in his History of England6). In hindsight, we might say that being Scottish was complementary and not antithetical to being British for much of post-Union history. We did not cease to be Scottish, but embedded it into British and Imperial identities. It took until the 1960s until the empire died, less with a bang than a whimper (no Dien Bien Phu for the Brits7); the winds of change blowing through Africa (as prime minister Harold MacMillan read the writing on the wall), as well as other places.

  • 8 ‘Airt’ is a perfectly acceptable Scottish term for area or direction. It appears on the Rotunda at (...)

12A friend of mine once said that I must feel like a kid in a sweet shop, given how ‘reality’ has come into line with my own intellectual interests in Scotland since I began work on the sociology of Scotland. ‘Reality’ has, in fact, done me a favour. My strong, if inchoate, feelings of being Scottish, growing up as I did in Aberdeen in the post-war period, were the norm. I was fortunate to live through the cultural revival of matters Scottish, coming as I did from the North-East where folklore and song were vibrant in the context of our attachment to the Land (after all, Grassic Gibbon’s Scots Quair was of our airt8). This is not to say that only the North-East was the repository of ‘being Scottish’, for as my friend and colleague Anthony Cohen has pointed out, there is a Glasgow way of being Scottish, an Aberdeen way, a Shetland way, and so on. He observes: ‘people construct the nation through the medium of their own experience, and in ways which are heavily influenced by their own circumstances. The nation is mediated through the self.’ (Cohen 146).

Territoriality and Ethnicity

  • 9 There is no English equivalent: King/Queen of England is the norm. we might dismiss this as simply (...)

13Locality and regional identities do not negate ‘being Scottish’ but are melded into it. Why is this not a contradiction? Because throughout our history being Scottish has been a matter of territoriality rather than ethnicity. We were too diverse a people from the outset to allow one ethnicity, language group, religion or region to define being Scottish. If and when we did, large fractions of the population were excluded, and usually that led to trouble. Better to pluralise ‘Scots’ – after all, our monarchs were kings and queens ‘of Scots’ plural9 – recognition that ‘the Crown’, in other words, the state, was a political rather than cultural creation. First, the state, then confecting a culture (including language) around the institutions of the state. We had little trouble using a form of English speech while thinking of ourselves indubitably as Scots. None of this is to claim ethical superiority for the Scots; it was a raison d’état, a fait accompli (I appreciate how the French language has the right words for these matters). Nor is it unique to Scotland, for uniting ‘the nation’ politically and sociologically usually precedes cultural processes. First the state, then the nation, as Ernest Gellner pointed out in his work. This is the history of France, after all, as Colette Beaune has taught us in her book La Naissance de la nation France, 1985, and indeed of England (see, for example, Adrian Hastings’ The Construction of Nationhood, 1997), and virtually all other states we can think of. It is a sleight of hand to turn around politics and culture such that imagining ‘a people’ (ethnically and culturally) takes precedence over statecraft, when, in truth, it is usually the other way round.

14Last year I was pleased to be asked to write a sociological account of the iconic Declaration of Arbroath in a book edited by Klaus Peter Muller (Declaring Abroath: Atque Supra Crepidam). I acknowledged the work of medievalist Dauvit Broun, professor of Scottish History at Glasgow University, who also took issue with the notion that culture preceded the state. He observed:

The core idea was of the Scots as a people obedient to the inherited authority of their king, free from the control of another king. The doctrine here was that sovereign kingdoms constituted peoples, not that ethnic communities should be politically independent; nations were communities of submission, not people bound together equally by a common culture; they were justified by lengthy king-lists, not fat dictionaries or vernacular epics. (The Declaration of Arbroath: pedigree of a nation? 7)

15And he continues:

The account of Scottish origins in The Declaration of Arbroath, as the pedigree of Scottish self- determination, was not a statement of biological descent or ethnic affiliation. It was the pedigree of an allegiance, a pattern of obedience intended to demonstrate the kingdom’s credentials as a thoroughbred institution with generations of history behind it. (The Declaration of Arbroath: pedigree of a nation? 8)

  • 10 Fatta l’Italia, bisogna fare gl’italiani’

16We are involved here in ‘nation-imagining’ as part of a process of state-building, which does not involve putting the nation-cart before the state-horse, although that retrospective process is usually how it is done. The famous statement in the 1860s by Massimo D’Azeglio about ‘making Italy’, that, having made Italy, the state, it was now necessary to ‘make Italians’10 is only unusual in recognising the order of the horse and cart in state-building. Being explicit about the process is risky because it seems to undermine the cultural and ethnic homogeneity of ‘a people’. The Scottish case is interesting in that it celebrates the ‘mongrel people’ quality of the nation - the writer William McIlvanney once drew great applause from a crowd of home rulers gathered for a demonstration in 1992 during a European summit in Edinburgh. In Scotland, there is little ‘pure laine’ (to borrow a Quebecois expression) to speak of. Scotland’s nation-status is recognised by scholars of nationalism such as Adrian Hastings who once observed that: ‘Sharing a land and a king created a nation. Scotland, even better than England or France, represents the triumph of territoriality over ethnicity in the construction of nationhood [...]’ (Hastings 71).

17Resistance to the English helped to form the Scottish nation, to make common cause. Dauvit Broun argued that the legal and administrative reforms between 1154 and 1189 in England during the reign of the English king Henry II, was the main spur towards regarding the Scottish kingdom as a single country, as being ‘not-England’ at the point at which regal authority south of the border was flexing its muscles. By the middle of the 13th century legal instruments such as those involving the circulation of money, sheriff courts and land inquests required the jurisdictional expansion of the Crown, which, rather than the person of the monarch, was responsible for shaping and imposing national institutions in Scotland, much as they did in France (Beaune).

18Furthermore, Broun argues, the notion of ‘Scotland’ came to be a phenomenon of the mind, and as an “idea that at some point, came to be thought of by its inhabitants as one-and-the-same as the kingdom they lived in” (Rethinking Scottish Origins 164). You will be aware of the famous statement in the Declaration of Arbroath that “It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself”. It is preceded by a more puzzling one, usually ignored, that if the king does not do the signatories’ biding, they will replace him with someone more willing to do so. It goes as follows:

Yet if he should give up what he has begun, seeking to make us or our kingdom subject to the king of England or to the English, we would strive at once to drive him out as our enemy and a subverter of his own right and ours, and we would make some other man who was able to defend us our king; for we fight not for glory […].

19This would appear to be a grand example of lèse-majesté. The point, however, is to reinforce the distinction between the Crown and the monarch, reinforcing the significance of institutions over personage.

  • 11 The collection of essays by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (The Invention of Tradition, 1984) cho (...)

20If we conclude that the 1320 Declaration of Arbroath is, in Broun’s words, “an embarrassingly brazen piece of propaganda”, it surely is not unique, but draws our attention to how the business of state-building actually works. Its opponents, of course, will all too readily be prepared to draw upon such expressions as proof of the ersatz nature of the nation-ness of others, while choosing not to examine their own11. At the heart of it, of course, is the vis-à-vis, for it is impossible to understand one system of power and domination without there being a significant Other.

Relating to Others: Scottish, British and European

  • 12 Strictly speaking, it should be called the Linz question because Juan Linz first used it in 1975 in (...)

21I now wish to broaden out my discussion of ‘Relating’ anent Scotland in terms of social and political attitudes. First, and in recognition that national identities have to be located in the vis-à-vis, there is how being Scottish connects with British, and with being European. I guess that there is a temptation to simplify in order to understand, to assume that, for example, people in Scotland no longer think of themselves as British. This is not so, for matters are much more complex, and interesting. Over the last twenty five years we have allowed ourselves to translate what is known as the ‘Moreno question’ into a measure of not-British12. To remind you, this is a useful five point (technically, a Likert) scale ranging from ‘Scottish not British’, ‘more Scottish than British’, ‘equally Scottish and British’, ‘more British than Scottish’, and ‘British not Scottish’.

  • 13 Most variation over time (T1 and T2) occurs among those saying they are equally Scottish and Britis (...)

These, of course, are classic ‘relational’ measures, and they show consistently that most people (from around half to two-thirds) in Scotland place themselves at the ‘Scottish’ end of the scale, either exclusively or mainly Scottish, and only 1 in 10 put themselves at the exclusively or mainly British end. This has led many commentators to jump to the conclusion that Scots no longer feel British. However, that is to over-interpret the findings. The scale does not, in and of itself, tell us anything much about the strength (or weakness) of being Scottish and being British. You could, for example, answer ‘more Scottish than British’, but not care very much either way, or, alternatively, care very much about both, but judge being Scottish ahead of being British. You choose the same identity category regardless of how important it is to you. In our research we tried to measure the strength of these separately in different questions, and then, and only then, compare responses. We found that while three-quarters of people in Scotland felt ‘strongly Scottish’, putting themselves at points 5, 6 or 7 on a 7-point ‘Scottish’ scale, fewer, but about half, also thought of themselves as ‘strongly British’, and more, intriguingly, both at the same time. You might reasonably argue that these are questions in the abstract, and that people answer differently according to contexts, or indeed, over time. We can dismiss the last point quite simply, because we also asked the same people at different time-points, and there turned out to be a high level of consistency in responses13.

  • 14 By way of background, in the English sample, 28% said they were only or mainly English, 25% that th (...)

22Let us explore more fully the relationship between national identity and Brexit. We know that national identity mattered far more in England than in Scotland in terms of how people voted14. That is to say, the more ‘English’ you thought yourself, the more likely you were to vote Leave. Being ‘Scottish’, on the other hand, made no difference at all. How come, given that this appears to run against the conventional wisdom that national identity is much stronger in Scotland? True, but the key point is that being Scottish is so ubiquitous north of the border, that it has no independent, that is, discriminating, effect.

23In England, on the other hand, thinking of yourself as English was a strong influence on voting Leave. In England, ‘English’ nationalism had a significant effect on the Brexit vote. If you thought of yourself as only or predominantly English, you were far more likely to vote for Brexit (66% of such people voted Leave); and if you thought of yourself as only or predominantly British, you were more likely to vote Remain (64%). That has a pleasing inverse relationship, and one of considerable, if obvious, statistical significance. Compare this with Scotland where those who considered themselves only or predominantly Scottish voted 35% to Leave, (and 65% Remain), while comparable Brits in Scotland voted 39% to Leave (and 61% Remain). Such a small percentage gap (a mere 4 percentage points) indicates that national identity in Scotland had no determining effect in statistical terms, on whether people voted Remain or Leave. To put it another way, in Scotland, there was something of an identity coalition such that people saying they were only or mainly Scottish, and those who thought of themselves British, both tended to vote Remain. In England, on the other hand, Brits (also) voted Remain but ‘the (only or mainly) English’ voted Leave, a relationship producing statistical significance between national identity and Brexit vote south of the border, but not north of it.

24Just to complicate matters, one can introduce ‘being European’ (or not) into the equation, as we did in 2017 using Scottish Social Attitudes data (Who’s European? Scotland and England compared). We found more than three-quarters of respondents were ‘strongly Scottish’, and just under half (48%) ‘strongly British’. However, almost as many (45%) of people in Scotland were ‘strongly European’ in contrast to only one-third in England. And just to make the point that things are not predictable, it is the weakly Scottish who are the strongest Europeans (56%), not the strongly Scottish (44%). This seems counter-intuitive, that the more British you are in Scotland the stronger European you are, especially in the context of the 2016 Brexit vote. Let us remind ourselves, however, that ‘being Scottish’ did not explain the Brexit vote in statistical terms, whereas ‘being English’ did.

25The point is that the strong Remain vote in 2016 was not the expression of personal Scottishness, so much as the assertion of institutional Scottishness effected by the Scottish government as a matter of political-institutional identity. While national identity in Scotland has little discriminating effect on ‘being European’ – people describing themselves as ‘mainly Scottish’ are just as likely to say they are ‘weak Europeans’ as strong ones, being English (in England) does have a major effect in that the English are far more likely to be ‘weak Europeans’. However, even weak Europeans in Scotland voted (narrowly) for Remain (by 51% to 49%), while in England weak Europeans voted Leave (by 65% to 35%). ‘Strong Europeans’ in both countries voted Remain in almost identical proportions (88% in Scotland, and 83% in England). The two national contexts clearly had a major effect.

26What do we draw from those findings? The key lies in the political-institutional context in which people construct who they are in identity terms. They do not do so in a vacuum. The Brexit vote politicised ‘being European’ such that there is a tighter alignment between European identity and European constitutional preferences. The Brexit process has infused being European in Scotland, and as I wrote in 2019, “‘independence in Europe’ carries cultural and political significance, especially in the context of a strong and abiding association between Brexit and being English. In that regard being Scottish and European is no political contradiction in terms” (Who’s European? Scotland and England compared 8), and, by implication, in England it is.

Mobilising Differences

27What has happened subsequently confirms the tightening up of the relationship between the Remain vote and support for Scottish Independence, just as there has been a tightening of the association between ‘being Scottish’ and support for Independence. On the latter point, whereas in 1997 less than half (48%) of those describing themselves as ‘Scottish not British’ were in favour of Independence, by 2017, this had risen to 72% (The New Sociology of Scotland, table 19.6, 401). In other words, there is little ‘fixed’ about national identity, which has the capacity to be politicised (or not) by various factors and events. This helps to explain why there is now much greater alignment between national identity (‘being Scottish’), support for Independence, as well as for voting Remain and retaining Scotland within the EU (Curtice and Montagu). These now stack up neatly, but it was not always so. It is not inevitable that this alignment should have taken place, for it has come about as a result of astute politics from Scottish government, as well as perceived antithesis with those in England, and the election of UK governments which Scotland has manifestly not voted for. It is worth remembering that between 1945 and 2019, Scotland got a UK government it had not voted for in half of the post-war elections (10 out of 20), which is three-quarters of the period in question. While the counter-argument might be that many English regions, notably in the north, also suffered a similar fate, the point is that issues of sovereignty are much more salient in Scotland, given that it was a partner to a Treaty of Union in 1707, and given the dominance of the Scottish National Party in Scottish politics since 2007 (McCrone and Keating). In other words, electoral politics triggers issues of sovereignty, because Scotland is a nation, not a region of the British state.

28Let us tie these matters more directly into the theme of Relating. In this discussion of national identity vis-à-vis political events such as Brexit 2016, and post-2014 referendum support for Scottish independence, there is nothing fixed or immutable about such associations. It depends on how well or badly political parties play their respective hands; how they are able to frame not only political issues but matters of identity. It all lies in the relationships which are crafted, as well as opportunities missed. The framing of Scottish politics is not inevitable. Our latest work points to the emergence of battle lines between sovereigntists and unionists, crystallised politically between SNP and Conservatives, and the side-lining of Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who, you will recall, dominated the Scottish political game from 1999 until 2007. Since then, the game has changed, but it was not inevitable that it would do so. Devolution appeared to be the ‘settled will’ of people in Scotland, or so unionist politicians claimed, especially until events surrounding the two referendums in the second decade of the new century: Scottish independence in 2014, and Brexit in 2016. With hindsight we can see that they were markers of political change of considerable substance. They helped to crystallise and destabilise the Union itself.

The Devolution Conundrum15

  • 15 The next time you drive over the Scottish-English border at Berwick-upon-Tweed on the east coast, l (...)

29So far, I have focused on Scottish relationships vis-à-vis wider political contexts: those of the UK and the EU. There is another set of relationships which are internal. It has been a puzzle since the creation of the Scottish parliament in 1999 as to why people trust it more, and place greater faith in it. In 2006, Alison Park and I drew attention to what we labelled the ‘devolution conundrum’, that people in Scotland gave credit to the Scottish parliament and government for socio-economic improvements, and attributed blame to the UK parliament and government where they perceived deterioration (Park and McCrone). This ‘conundrum’ applied even where, in the case of the economy and welfare provision, the British state was nominally in control of retained powers. We were quite prepared to accept that this might happen in the early halcyon days of devolution where the hard grind and challenges had yet to come. And yet, when I reviewed the Scottish parliament after 20 years (Peeble them wi’ stanes: twenty years of the Scottish Parliament), I found that degree of early optimism had been sustained, bearing in mind that early Scottish governments (called ‘executives’ in the parlance of the day) were ruled by Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians. The election of subsequent Nationalist governments from 2007 onwards simply reinforced people’s views. For example, in terms of standards in the health service over the previous year, those who thought they had improved gave the credit to Scottish government (57%) rather than UK government (19%); those who thought they had deteriorated blamed UK government (48%) rather than Scottish government (19%). Similarly with changes in the economy: those who thought it had become stronger credited Scottish government (54%) rather than UK government (16%), and those who thought it weaker blamed UK government (38%) and not Scottish government (14%). The point is clear and systematic, and does not need belabouring: people trust Scottish government far more than UK government, even where ostensibly powers are retained by Westminster (such as over the economy). It comes, then, as no surprise that Scottish government does much better than UK government as regards trust relationships (see the summary table 1):

Table 1: Judgements about Scottish and UK governments

Scottish government

UK government

‘good at listening’



‘works in Scotland long-term interests always/most of time’



‘trusts to make fair decisions a great deal/quite a lot of the time’



Source: McCrone (2019b)

30To repeat the point: people in Scotland place much greater trust in Scottish government and parliament than they do in the UK tier. Those most likely to do so are younger people, those with a high interest in politics, SNP voters and supporters of Independence. That may not surprise us, but note that Scottish national identity does not figure in that list. Back in 1999, we argued that establishing the parliament was not to be taken primarily as a personal expression of Scottishness, but an institutional one, about enhancing the quality of Scottish democracy. Before the parliament was established, we found expectations high: 80% expected the parliament to be responsive to people in Scotland; 70% that it would give Scotland a stronger voice in the UK, and 60% that it would give Scotland a stronger voice in the EU. On the cusp of the parliament, we concluded:

Scots are not nationalists for expressive reasons: identity matters less to politics than effective government. But, equally, they are not anti-nationalist either. Because the option of Independence will not go away – and because it does not provoke deep animosity among the majority – for the foreseeable future Scottish politics will continue to be dominated by the question of how the country is governed. (Brown, McCrone and Paterson 162-3)

31Once we appreciate that national identities are in essence about materialities rather than emotions, we can make sense of events of the last decade: a referendum in 2014 where the losers ‘won’ and the victors ‘lost’ in the sense that the momentum towards greater self-government was maintained. Nor in the outcomes of the 2016 Brexit referendum, once more ‘lost’ in Scottish terms, but reinforcing the sense of grievance that Scotland’s voice had not been heeded, as well as giving added impetus to ‘independence in Europe’.

Pandemic and Politics

32And then came covid-19. Everything seemed to be turned on its head; except it was not. The election of a UK right-wing government in late 2019 under Boris Johnson dedicated to effecting Brexit made the political-cultural differences between Scotland and England even greater. What was crucial to that difference was the ‘trust credit’ which successive Scottish governments had built up. In other words, the Scottish political system had a good store of trust relationships and social capital put by for that proverbial rainy day.

33And that rainy day came early in 2020. Enter covid-19, by far the greatest public policy challenge to Scottish government since the parliament was established 20 years ago. At the end of 2020, the psephologist John Curtice commented that

The question of how well the Scottish Government is thought to have handled the pandemic is likely to feature prominently in voters’ minds in May [2021]– and provides not only a key yardstick by which the competence of the SNP will be judged, but also evidence that might be thought relevant to the debate about Scotland's ability to govern itself. (Curtice)

34Almost imperceptibly, in the context of wrangling at Westminster over the terms of EU withdrawal, the fall of the May government and its replacement by a more right-wing one led by Johnson dedicated to Brexit almost at any cost, in Scotland there was greater alignment taking place as regards support for Remain and support for Scottish independence. John Curtice observed that “although it may not have been either the intention or the wish of those who advocated the UK's withdrawal from the EU, in practice the pursuit of Brexit was undermining support for the Union” (Curtice). Furthermore, people in Scotland were far more likely to trust the Scottish government over handling covid-19, than they were the UK government. In September 2020, a mere 17% of people in Scotland thought that the UK government, and Boris Johnson, had handled the crisis well, compared with 47% in April. By contrast, more than three-quarters thought Scottish government, and Nicola Sturgeon, had handled it well, much the same as six months previously. Nor was this simply a reflection of SNP sympathies, for among those who had voted Tory in Scotland in December 2019, credit went almost equally to UK and Scottish governments (respectively, 44% and 42%).

  • 16 Support for Independence among Leave voters had risen by 7 percentage points, compared with a rise (...)
  • 17 Those who had voted Yes in ScIndyRef 2014 were already convinced, and there was a rise of only 4 pe (...)

35Of greater significance was that crediting Scottish government seemed to be leading to greater support for Scottish independence in a way in which Brexit had largely failed to do. Whereas post-Brexit support for Independence had virtually flat-lined at 50% or slightly below, opinion polls since covid-19 began were showing consistent support of the order of 54% to 46%, with marginally more Leave than Remain voters in proportional terms making the switch to Independence16. Crucially, when asked in August 2020 “Do you think Scotland would have responded to coronavirus better or worse as an independent country?”, as many as 43 per cent said that an independent Scotland would have handled it better, while just 16 per cent said it would have done worse. And among those who had actually voted No in the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum, as many as 20% agreed that being an independent country would have made a positive difference17.

  • 18 Scottish government has had to face similar problems to UK government as regards how to manage covi (...)

36The implications are obvious. Support for Independence has coalesced around the 2016 Remain vote, reinforced by perceived confidence in Scottish government as regards covid-19. Faced with the greatest health challenge in the history of the parliament, and arguably since 1945, trust in Scottish government in handling the pandemic has reinforced its reputation for competence, whether justified or not18, and broken through the 50% barrier in support for Independence. In other words, reactions to Brexit and to covid-19 in Scotland have amplified and reinforced support for constitutional change. In Curtice’s words:

A dramatic divergence between voters’ perceptions of the effectiveness of government in London and that in Edinburgh has seemingly ensured that, for the first time in polling history, independence is now a more popular option than remaining in the Union. (Curtice)

37Other parties, notably Labour, suffered a squeeze in support, losing a substantial bloc of ‘nationalist’ votes to the SNP post-2014, and of ‘unionists’ to the Conservatives post-2016 (McCrone and Keating). They have become bit-players in the constitutional politics of modern Scotland, and claims that pan-UK federalism, seemingly attractive to the Labour leadership under Keir Starmer, would offer a solution is, classically, too little and too late.


38Scottish self-government has long provided a puzzle for students of its culture and politics. It had been an independent country for most of its history, certainly for more than 500 years; it, more or less, willingly acceded to ‘union’ with its larger and more powerful neighbour to the south in 1707, but by way of negotiating a ‘mariage de raison’ whereby it retained much of its institutional autonomy; it was happy to remain in that union for much of the next 250 years, before the sinews tying it to state and empire began to fray imperceptibly but seriously after 1945. It became obvious in the 1970s that there was insufficient ‘raison’ to hold it in the Union once North Sea oil provided the political-psychological break with the British state.

39Many have tried to explain that break in terms of ‘colonial oppression’ - Scotland as an ‘internal colony’ of England (Hechter) - or in terms of significant cultural differences with its southern neighbour, although usually these differences, such as language or religion, were deemed to be too insignificant to make the difference (Anderson). Much effort has been spent on trying to make a systematic connection between ‘culture’ and ‘politics’, from Tom Nairn’s inventive account of deformed culture such that there was insufficient cultural straw to make the necessary constitutional bricks, to Cairns Craig’s analysis of post-1945 cultural developments where he turned the conventional argument on its head:

The fragmentation and division which made Scotland seem abnormal to an earlier part of the 20th century came to be the norm for much of the world’s population. Bilingualism, biculturalism and the inheritance of a diversity of fragmented traditions were to be the source of creativity rather than its inhibition in the second half of the twentieth century, and Scotland ceased to have to measure itself against the false “norm”, psychological as well as cultural, of the unified national tradition. (Craig 7)

40And more recently, there is Scott Hames’ book Snares and Delusions: Culture and Politics in Scotland (2020). I have long taken the view that nationalism in Scotland is, by and large, culture-lite, and in my review in Scottish Affairs, I have recanted a little, but not too much. I am, in the last resort, a Gellnerian in that I follow Ernest Gellner’s view that the ‘materiality’ rather than the ‘culturality’ of politics is what matters (Sociology of Nationalism: tomorrow’s ancestors). After all, our near-neighbour Ireland had much more cultural straw to play with (language and religion) to say nothing of a history of colonial repression by Anglo-British imperialism. And yet, I would argue that nationalism in Ireland is more ‘political’ than ‘cultural’, and always has been, but in the last resort I would argue that it is something of a false dichotomy, one feeding off the other. I wrote in my review of Hames’ book:

Perhaps culture and politics are separate heavenly spheres which touch and bounce off each other in the firmament. We notice their tangents, and assume that they should be better aligned than they are. It’s a moot point just how much the most recent cultural renaissance connects up with political developments in Scotland, the one to influence the other. Does it matter at the end of the day? Probably not. Baith gang their ane gyte. (Snares and delusions: culture and politics in Scotland 146)

41I still subscribe to that view; but I would not go to the guillotine for it. It has made, though, a lifetime studying Scotland a gift, a privilege and a delight, and I thank the Society for Scottish Studies for the opportunity to say so.

Haut de page


Anderson, B. (1996), Imagined Communities: reflections on the origins and spread of nationalism, revised edition, London: Verso.

Banton, M. (1997), Ethnic and Racial Consciousness, second edition, London: Longman.

Beaune, C. (1985), Naissance de la Nation France, Paris: Gallimard.

Broun, D. (2003), ‘The Declaration of Arbroath: pedigree of a nation?’, in G. Barrow (ed.) The Declaration of Arbroath: History, Significance, Setting, Edinburgh: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 1-12.

Broun, D. (2015), ‘Rethinking Scottish Origins’, in S. Boardman and S. Foran (eds.) Barbour’s Bruce and its Cultural Contexts, Martlesham: Boydell and Brewer.

Brown, A., D. McCrone and L. Paterson (1999), The Scottish Electorate: The 1997 General Election and beyond, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Cohen, A. (2000), ‘Peripheral vision: nationalism, national identity and the objective correlative in Scotland’, in A. Cohen (ed.) 2000 Signifying Identities: Anthropological perspectives on boundaries and contested values, London: Routledge.

Condor, S. (2010), ‘Devolution and national identity: the rules of English (dis)engagement’, in Nations and Nationalism, 14(1), 83-98.

Craig, C. (1987), ‘Twentieth century Scottish literature: an introduction’, in C. Craig (ed.) The History of Scottish Literature, Volume 4, The Twentieth Century, Aberdeen University Press.

Curtice, J. and I. Montague (2018), ‘Scotland: How Brexit has created a new divide in the nationalist movement’, in British Social Attitudes, 35, 2018: 196–225, http://www.

Curtice, J. (2020), ‘High Noon for the Union?’, in IPPR, Progressive Review, 17th December

Hastings, A. (1997), The Construction of Nationhood: ethnicity, religion and nationalism, Cambridge University Press.

Hechter, M. (1975), Internal Colonialism: The Celtic fringe in British national development, 1536-1966, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

McCrone, D. and F. Bechhofer (2015), Understanding National Identity, Cambridge University Press.

Kumar, K. (2003), The Making of English National Identity, Cambridge University Press.

McCrone, D. (1998), Sociology of Nationalism: tomorrow’s ancestors, London: Routledge.

McCrone, D. (2017a), The New Sociology of Scotland, London: Sage Publications.

McCrone, D. (2017b), ‘Explaining Brexit north and south of the border’, in Scottish Affairs, 26(4), 391-410.

McCrone, D. (2019a), ‘Who’s European? Scotland and England compared’, in The Political Quarterly, 90(3), 1-10.

McCrone, D. (2019b), ‘Peeble them wi’ stanes: twenty years of the Scottish Parliament’, in Scottish Affairs, 28(2) 125-151.

McCrone, D. (2020a), ‘Declaring Arbroath: Atque Supra Crepidam’, in Klaus Peter Muller (ed.) Scotland and Arbroath, 1320-2020, Peter Lang: Berlin.

McCrone, D. (2020b) ‘Snares and delusions: culture and politics in Scotland’, in Scottish Affairs, 30(1), 144-6.

McCrone, D. and M. Keating (2021), ‘Questions of Sovereignty: Redefining Politics in Scotland?’, in The Political Quarterly, DOI: 10.1111/1467-923X.12958.

Park, A. and McCrone, D. (2006). ‘The Devolution Conundrum?’, in Bromley, C, Curtice, J., McCrone, D. and Park, A. Has Devolution Delivered?, Edinburgh University Press.

Haut de page


1 Describing people as white or non-white is a good example of implicit othering embedded in any social Category. It is only meaningful in context, and has no external, explicit meaning per se. Most of us so defined do not conform to strict Pantone colours. In any case, ‘white’ people are pinkish-grey. And ‘non-white’ is a fairly meaningless category except in terms of what it is not. ‘Black’ covers a multitude of important ethnic differences.; hence, recourse to ‘people of colour’ as a catch-all.

2 I am reminded of the ironic doggerel by J.H.Goring (1909): ‘The Germans live in Germany/The Romans live in Rome/the Turkeys live in Turkey/ and the English live at home’ (The Ballad of Lake Laloo and other Rhymes).

3 I am partial to the account of the descriptive adjective ‘Great’ to refer to the big island as opposed to ‘Bretagne’ (Breizh) whence trade took place to and fro across the sea from what is now Wales and Cornwall. Pointing this out helps to prick the assumption of ‘greatness’ in a political-cultural sense.

4 GBS was Irish, but might be thought of, rather, as a ‘West Brit’, a term, slightly mocking, referring to someone considered ‘British’ rather than Irish in aspiration and orientation. The term ‘North Brit’, to refer to Scotland, fell into desuetude much earlier.

5 See McCrone and Bechhofer (2015), chapter 8 for our discussion of Britishness.

6 It was not an egregious error on Hume’s part. He was using ‘England’ in the generic sense of his post-Union day.

7 The term ‘Brit’ seems to have become established in discourse in these islands, but arguably began in Ireland during the 1970s Troubles where the graffito ‘Brits Out’ appeared on walls in the North. The term subsequently entered common usage on the GB ‘mainland’, but losing its pejorative meaning.

8 ‘Airt’ is a perfectly acceptable Scottish term for area or direction. It appears on the Rotunda at Bannockburn: ‘Here lies our land: every airt’.

9 There is no English equivalent: King/Queen of England is the norm. we might dismiss this as simply an accident of language, but language is not accidental as Noam Chomsky pointed out; see his early book Language and Mind, 1968.

10 Fatta l’Italia, bisogna fare gl’italiani’

11 The collection of essays by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (The Invention of Tradition, 1984) chose to examine, by and large, traditions they disapproved of such as Scottish Highland clan culture.

12 Strictly speaking, it should be called the Linz question because Juan Linz first used it in 1975 in the context of the post-Franco era to judge how ‘Spanish’ Catalans felt. Luis Moreno used it in a Scottish/British context a decade later.

13 Most variation over time (T1 and T2) occurs among those saying they are equally Scottish and British, that is, the mid-point of the scale, with ‘leakage’ to adjacent points 2 and 4 at T2.

14 By way of background, in the English sample, 28% said they were only or mainly English, 25% that they were only or mainly British, with 47% equally English and British. In the Scottish sample, 55% said they were only or mainly Scottish, 10% that they were only or mainly British, and 34% equally Scottish and British.

15 The next time you drive over the Scottish-English border at Berwick-upon-Tweed on the east coast, look out for the road sign on your left to ‘Conundrum’, once a battlefield but now little more than a farm steading, and still evocative of the condition of being-between the two countries.

16 Support for Independence among Leave voters had risen by 7 percentage points, compared with a rise of 4 percentage points among Remain voters, although the latter (at 60%) were more likely to support Independence than Leavers (at 37%).

17 Those who had voted Yes in ScIndyRef 2014 were already convinced, and there was a rise of only 4 percentage points among them.

18 Scottish government has had to face similar problems to UK government as regards how to manage covid outbreaks in care homes, problems with test and trace, and administering vaccines, which are problems unique neither to Scotland nor the UK.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

David McCRONE, « The Question of the vis-à-vis: Scotland and Others »E-rea [En ligne], 19.2 | 2022, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2022, consulté le 30 septembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

Haut de page



University of Edinburgh
David McCrone is emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Edinburgh. Born and brought up in Aberdeen, he is a Fellow of the British Academy, and of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. His most recent books include Understanding National Identity (2015) – with Frank Bechhofer, and The New Sociology of Scotland (2017). His latest book, Who Runs Edinburgh?, will be published by Edinburgh University Press in October 2022.

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur


Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC-BY-NC-ND-4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

Haut de page
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search