How Britain shaped Scottish identity – and Brexit could reshape it further

Part 12 of Who is 'Europe'?, a weekly series on how European natives and residents are responding to pressures from terrorism, migration, nationalism, and the 'European project.'

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
People walk down the Royal Mile past shops, in August 2014, in Edinburgh, Scotland

Central Scotland in the 1970s was a largely monochrome place.

Many people lived in gray pebble-dashed houses rented from the local council. The population was largely white and working-class. Scotland’s great industries – mining, shipbuilding – were in decline but still the predominant source of employment.

“Spaghetti Bolognese used to come in a tin. That was the limit of how exotic it got where we lived,” says Jim Cassidy, now 46, who was raised in Airdrie, a working class town of around 35,000 that sits between Scotland’s two largest cities, Glasgow and Edinburgh. [Editor's note: The story originally misstated which two cities are Scotland's largest.]

Growing up, Mr. Cassidy always described himself as Scottish. “Until I was 18, I never went out of Scotland. I didn’t see myself in any international sense at all,” he recalls. Three decades later, however, the railway worker’s view of himself has changed quite dramatically. “I now see myself as Scottish and European and not just Scottish,” Cassidy says.

Such views are not universal. Most Scots do not see themselves as European. But that may be starting to change, thanks in large part to last month's vote in favor of Brexit.

Just as political events out of London in the 1980s and '90s – including the policies of Margaret Thatcher and the creation of a Scottish parliament – spurred Scots to increasingly identify themselves as Scottish rather than British, so too could Brexit strengthen Scotland's relationship with Europe. As the English and other pro-Brexit groups in Britain push away from the European Union, Scots may increasingly embrace Europeanness as a way of distinguishing themselves from their neighbors to the south.

“I would expect to see a rise in Europeanness,” says Laura Cram, professor of politics at Edinburgh University. “If you feel deprived of something then it matters to you even more. Not only did you not vote for it but now someone is taking it away from you.”

Scottishness and Englishness

Cassidy attributes his shifting identity to a number of factors: a spell in Germany in the 1980s with the British Army (“that was my first experience of that side of Britishness. I found it very insular”) and vastly improved links with continental Europe, where he frequently travels.

But arguably the biggest change has been political. Since the 1980s, Scotland has had an increasingly distinct political identity, embodied by a devolved parliament in Edinburgh. Last month, almost two-thirds of Scots voted to remain in the EU, but the strong leave vote in England ultimately pushed Britain towards Brexit.

But in recent years, Scots' sense of belonging to Britain has waned: more and more, they identify as only or predominantly Scottish. Barely one in 10 Scots say they are more British than Scottish or British only.

That decrease suggests that Scotland's turn toward Europe is not so much a proactive embrace of Brussels, but rather a byproduct of an increasing political divide between Scotland and England, a recurring theme in the 2014 referendum and one that Brexit could reinforce.

“The outcome of this referendum is the sense that there is a difference between Scottishness and Englishness [that] has increased,” says Prof. Cram. "Whether or not it is real or not doesn’t matter, what matters is the belief that it is [real]."

A repeat of recent history?

Although Scots often express similar views to their English counterparts on attitudinal surveys, Scottish electoral choices increasingly diverge. In the 2015 UK general election, the center-left Scottish National Party won all but three of Scotland’s 59 seats at Westminster. The Conservative party, which won an overall majority, captured just a single Scottish seat.

The rise of a distinctive Scottish political identity can be traced to Margaret Thatcher. The "Iron Lady," who was British prime minister from 1979 to 1990, is still often blamed for the post-industrial travails that still scar much of Scotland. “Once you get into Thatcher’s Britain you started to see much more identification as ‘Scottish’ [among Scots]; after that it just became a wave,” says Cram.

The creation of a Scottish Parliament in the late 1990s was a pivotal moment. The Labour Party, who established the legislature, hoped it would "kill nationalism stone dead," but it had the opposite effect. Support for independence has grown.

Where Scottishness was previously largely a cultural identity, it has become “institutionalized," says Cram. Public displays of Scottish political identity have grown. “The rise in flags, the next generation won’t see that. The body of new voters now can’t remember a time without a Scottish parliament. It’s not contested, you don’t have to justify being Scottish.”

The so-called "tartan cringe" – Scots' embarrassment around expressions of their cultural identity – has declined, too. As a child, Cram remembers being upbraided for using the Scots dialect at home. “If we came home and said ‘I ken’ or ‘hen,’ our mum would say to us 'that’s OK in the playground but not in the home.' But now my son would happily go in his kilt to a school ceilidh [traditional dance], but my brother wouldn’t have been seen dead in it.”

A growing divide

As Scots have become more comfortable in their identity, Scottish politicians have also made different decisions about a range of issues, including Europe. Both sides in the 2014 independence referendum were pro-European Union. While the British parliament has often used the European Union as a whipping boy, all the parties in the Scottish parliament backed a remain vote last month.

Thirty-year-old Kelly Forbes has seen her identity shift since the late 1990s. “I identified a lot as British rather than Scottish as a teenager, I think reacting against what I saw as reactionary Scottish, as inward-looking politics,” says Forbes, who grew up in the Scottish Borders but now lives in Edinburgh. “But as I got older, my Scottish identity has certainly become stronger, but it has changed over that time.”

Ms. Forbes, a policy researcher, sees more positive aspects to Scottishness, especially in the aftermath of the Brexit vote. “Every time I see a bagpipe player, I want to run. But there are other elements of Scottish identity evoked in the past five years, more of a sense of positivity and possibility and not just grievance and victimhood," she says.

With another independence referendum likely in the coming years, the articulation of Scottishness as outward-looking and progressive is likely to become a significant feature of Scotland’s political discourse.

Scottishness and Europeanness

But Michael Keating, professor of politics at Aberdeen University, cautions that many Scots do not identify with Europe, and more than a third of SNP voters backed Brexit.

Those who feel most stridently Scottish – and are most likely to back independence – are often skeptical of the EU. “Strong Scottish and European identity do not correlate. Moderate ones do,” says Professor Keating.

Billy Dodds, a father of two in Glasgow’s East End, voted to stay in the EU. He sees himself as as proudly Scottish and British in equal measure, but has “never thought” of himself as European.

Having campaigned against independence in 2014, Mr. Dodds believes that the Scottish Government has erroneously taken his remain vote as an expression of support for another independence referendum.

“The reactions of the losing sides in both referendums has possibly made me view myself as more British," he says, but it also "has made me very weary of politicians and the way people seem to view democracy as great only when it suits their agenda.”

This was part 12 of Who is 'Europe'?, a weekly series on how European natives and residents are responding to pressures from terrorism, migration, nationalism, and the 'European project.' See all of the stories on the series homepage.

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