Wha’s Like Us?


In his documentary ‘Border Country: the Story of Britain’s Lost Middleland’, shown on BBC television shortly before the 2014 Independence Referendum, the presenter Rory Stewart (Tory MP for Penrith) suggested that the England-Scotland border has historically been very fluid, that in reality there was no cultural difference between the English and the Scots on either side of the border, thus demonstrating that borders are artificial constructs. On a similar theme in a 2017 General Election speech in Edinburgh, Theresa May suggested that in the United Kingdom ‘we are all one people’, seeming to also suggest that there is no difference between Scots and other Nations of the UK. While in no way endorsing any ‘blood and soil’ Nationalism, I think there is a difference. In this article I’d like to explore why that might be the case.

The differences seem to be due to a combination of history and geography. Historically, English culture has been shaped by the Romans, Anglo Saxons and Normans, who between them created the market economy, civic institutions, the nuclear family, hierarchical structures and the rule of law. Collectively these encouraged social and economic mobility. In his book ‘The Pinch’, David (Two Brains) Willets suggests that the driving force of all these characteristics in England was the nuclear family, a unique institution when it emerged over 1000 years ago as a result of migration by Germanic Angles. Contrasting the nuclear family with the extended family or tribal structure Willets observes: ‘Big Clan style families are better than nuclear ones at spreading advantage and pooling risks, but for them to be effective people have to stay close to each other, so there is less mobility’

Willetts use of the word Clan to describe the extended family is apt as the Clan tribal structure was the norm in the Scottish Highlands until the 19th century, where the notion of economic and social mobility was an alien concept. While there was a hierarchy in Clans, it was much flatter than in English society. So while the English were living in small family groups and moving both for economic and social reasons from the early Middle-ages, the extended family of the Clan wasn’t seriously disturbed until the Clearances of the 1800s.

The Romans introduced the concept of trade and civic institutions, through the creation of market towns and guilds where goods could be exchanged, imported and exported, taking advantage of Southern England’s proximity to continental Europe and Roman lines of commerce. In Caledonia by contrast, the Romans made little impact beyond the Borders. It’s often said that this was due to the wild people who lived further North and was perhaps true to some extent, though I suspect the main reason was the lack of trading opportunities.

The Normans brought with them the feudal hierarchy of Lords, vassals and fiefs, the remnants of which are still very much evident in present-day Britain (eg the House of Lords). Whilst the Normans had a greater influence in Scotland than either the Romans or Anglo Saxons (Robert the Bruce was of partial Norman stock), again the impact was less dominant than in England. In Scotland the process was more one of assimilation where Norman Knights married into Scottish nobility. In contrast to England and particularly in Wales, where a network of castles were built to quell the natives, few great Norman castles were built in Scotland.

All these incursions tended towards the South and East of Scotland (Stewart’s ‘Borderlands’), unsurprising, as this is where the best agricultural lands were to be found. Meanwhile the North and West of Scotland continued to be dominated first by the Celts then the Norsemen. Though the Industrial Revolution had a homogenising influence throughout Britain, the Celtic culture and the Clan structure still seems to resonate in Scottish society, with an emphasis on social justice.

English hierarchical structures and Scottish egalitarianism extended to the Church. While the Reformation saw the emergence of Anglicanism, replete with Bishops, ceremony and the Monarch at its head, in Scotland the Presbyterian Church adopted an altogether simpler, flatter structure  and sought to separate Church from State. The Church of Scotland also developed a policy of ‘a school in every parish’ which gave rise to the Scots becoming the best educated citizens in the British Isles, with more universities than England until the 19th century. It’s no surprise that  Scotland was the crucible of the European Enlightenment in the British Isles.

Scotland is approximately two thirds the size of England but has only 10% of the population. These simple facts of geography perhaps also help to explain any cultural difference between the English and the Scots. South of a line between Hull and Liverpool, the English are very much an urban population with little contact with country life. It’s said that whilst you must go back 3 generations to find any direct experience of agriculture in an English family, in Scotland it’s only 2 generations. Even that doesn’t make the distinction between England and Scotland. In England the migration from country to town was often driven by a desire to ‘get on’. While this was also the case in Scotland, the shift to the towns was also a consequence of the Clearances, so the shift was more existential and less aspirational. That more people in England have made the latter choice is indisputable and what that does is to create, or at least encourage, a different mind-set, one based on ambition  rather than survival.

While there are many shades in between, country life and city life could be said to occupy opposite ends of a spectrum. So while a city lover might be upwardly mobile and status conscious, country dwellers are much more likely to be content with their lot and take a ‘live and let live’ attitude. The greater concentration of people with little or no contact with country living then becomes both a cause and a result of different priorities, priorities which in the case of England and Scotland are magnified by their different histories.

One example of how the social hierarchy in England today differs from Scotland can be seen in professions like the media and law. In England it’s almost mandatory to speak with a Standard English accent. A regional accent, from say, Liverpool, Birmingham or Tyneside is professional suicide. In Scotland by contrast, no such snobbery exists and a Scottish accent is no barrier to advancement. Indeed judging by the large number of Scottish presenters on BBC TV and radio, a Scottish accent appears to be a positive advantage. Perhaps this is because, unlike an English regional accent, a Scottish accent doesn’t carry any status assumptions.

These cultural differences are reflected in politics, which in Scotland is dominated by left of centre parties. The last time the Tories won a majority of seats in Scotland was in 1955, in an altogether more deferential age. This left leaning bias in Scotland is the major reason why Jeremy Corbyn seems to believe he can make inroads here. Meanwhile the voters in England tend to vote more consistently right wing.

What I’m not saying is that the differences between the Scots and the English are massive, rather that they are individually quite subtle but, taken collectively, lead to a cultural and ultimately, a political divergence. On a recent TV programme, the owner of a swanky London boutique hotel mentioned that he employed all Australian front-of-house staff because in his view Australians don’t know how to be snobbish – it’s not in their nature. In my experience as an Englishman, the same is true of Scots.