Matthew Parris

Scotland knows the power of a common enemy. We English don’t

In Scotland as in Catalonia, it is a shared sense of victimhood that is the strongest source of patriotism

18 April 2015

9:00 AM

18 April 2015

9:00 AM

When last Sunday Pope Francis took the brave step of acknowledging the Armenian tragedy as the ‘first genocide of the 20th century’, he knew he was entering a minefield. On 24 April Armenians will commemorate the 100th anniversary of their genocide. There can be no single date for a genocide but that was the day the entire leadership of the Armenian people was arrested by the Ottoman government in Constantinople, now Istanbul, whose successors are the modern Turkish state. The Ottomans had never trusted Armenians, who were Christians, and had long suspected them of being a fifth column within the empire. There had already been pogroms.

But now began a sustained campaign of massacre, eviction and cultural suppression at the end of which somewhere between 600,000 and 1.5 million Armenians had been murdered, and the survivors scattered to the four winds to become the enormous diaspora that expatriate Armenians constitute today, even though there is now an Armenian state and government.

The whole ghastly episode remains the subject of deep and neuralgic controversy on both sides, the only agreement being that it was indeed a ghastly episode. Turks furiously deny that the mass murders were planned or systematic and that this could therefore amount to a genocide; everyone disputes the numbers though all agree they were huge; and countries like ours rather feebly decline to go beyond words like ‘tragedy’, for fear of upsetting a strategically important ally: Turkey. If you want to start a fight in a bar in Ankara, Nicosia, Beirut or a score more places where Armenians have settled (and on the whole prospered), then just mention the Armenian genocide.

An Inconvenient Genocide, by the barrister Geoffrey Robertson (which I came across this winter when judging the Political Book Awards), argues the Armenian corner with informed eloquence. Others too have remarked on how, among the diaspora, this massive shared grievance remains raw and strong — and a unifying national and cultural cause, stories of its horrors handed down through generations born long after the event. Comparisons with the Jewish Holocaust and its reverberations through modern history are too obvious to ignore, though this comparison too touches raw nerves.


But my purpose here is not to enter the fray. Instead I want to reflect on the power — for good and ill — of a tremendous sense of collective grievance, in unifying a people, and perhaps even in forging a national identity. During the general election campaign, we English have only to watch Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish Nationalist leader, to understand the centrality to her cause of that Braveheart feeling that the English are the alien oppressors: usurpers, bullies and cheats, and a yoke to be thrown off. Without that shared sense of victimhood — without England — Scotland, beneath whose surface lurk deep fractures and clashes of interest and identity, would find it much harder to muster the unity that the coming election looks likely to advertise. ‘You bully us, therefore we are.’

But the same cannot be said of England vis-à-vis Scotland or indeed vis-à-vis anywhere else. We feel English more in the contemplation of those we’ve bullied than those who have bullied us. We don’t really know how it feels to be insurgents, there’s no symmetry with Scotland, and I wonder if in our nation’s history there ever has been. Certainly France was seen as a fearsome enemy, but also as a worthy rival. Maybe the closest we came to that Braveheart feeling was during the dark days of the second world war — that British Tommy’s ‘very well, then: alone’ spirit whose sense of being outnumbered proved an energising force. But our hatred of the Nazis was contempt for an adversary, rather than the passive-aggressive complaint that we had been cheated of our birthright.

The other small nation with which I’m particularly familiar is Catalonia. In their long history, the Catalans have lost every war in which they have engaged — and they actually boast about that. Their shield of four blood-red stripes on a yellow field is supposed (romantic nationalist legend has it) to represent the lines drawn across the dying Wilfred I the Hairy’s golden shield by the fingers of Charles the Bald in 987, bloodied in the Catalan duke’s fatal wounds.

Today, recrudescent Catalan nationalism’s uniting idea is horror of the government of Spain, which (they insist) not only cheats them of their money, but denies their language and culture its rightful status, and denies them the freedom they crave as a nation. Any Catalan will recite with ease the wounds and insults their nation has received at the hands of Spain all down the ages. General Franco’s ban on the use of Catalan in public is seized on with particular relish, though the country is now bilingual. If you argue with Catalan nationalists that Madrid is not the monster they imagine, they respond with anger and disappointment. Again, the passive aggression; again the wish to be the underdog. And just as in Scotland, this shared sense of national grievance knits the nation together, reinforcing identity.

I submit that we English have little direct experience of feeling together because we are persecuted together. We are not defined by our enemies. Instead we have tended to find our nationhood in the swagger rather than the cringe: a kind of Rule Britannia bravado. America, which started as a salon des réfusés, feels today (as, despite the evidence, we still do) like a boss nation too. But this isn’t just about power and size. Russia, always a great power, looks for cohesion in a kind of vast collective persecution complex — which we unwisely feed with our Putin-reinforcing economic sanctions.

The closest we have in England to a rallying of national feeling by a feeding of national paranoia is Ukip; but though some of the English buy this, most never will. For us the bark stirs patriotism more readily than the whimper. I’m not sure I care for either. I simply point it out.

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Show comments
  • The Bogle

    You keep writing “We English” yet when one checks your biography, Mr Parris, one may reach the conclusion that England is your adopted country. Born in southern Africa and brought up in parts of what is now the Commonwealth, though your parents were from England, you strike me as British rather than English and so you could, as an outsider, lend a more objective voice to this debate.

    • MahatmaFarage

      To paraphrase Liam Byrne: “there are no English left.”

      • scepticeu

        Don’t you believe it, there are.

      • According to the 2011 census. 70% of England’s population self identify as English. >50% of England’s population self identify as English only. So there’s plenty of English left. Trouble is those who rule England come from the 30% and appear to hate both England & the English. As far as I’m concerned they are the “common enemy” because they are the obstacle between England and English home rule.

  • What a stupid article!

    • MountainousIpswich

      Actually – as a Welshman, it strikes me as entirely true. Try sitting in the opposition stand during an English football or rugby match versus any of the other home nations. While personally and individually we might have no problem with the English, collectively we have a great hatred of the English state for things that happened at least 500 years ago. For no logical reason whatsoever.

      Even though I know logically that cutting Wales off from london would make it the poorest nation in Europe, with a small growth industry in sheep farming, if given the choice I would, completely irrationally, vote for independence tomorrow.

      As I’m not in Wales however, I’ll be voting UKIP. Remember, your hatred for Brussels is as ours is for London.

  • suaviter

    `We are not defined by our enemies`, claims Mr Parris.
    Quiet the opposite would appear to be the case, just look at the debate on whether the UK should leave the EU for example

    • Bertie

      Why does anyone listen to Matthew Parris – limp wristed social liberal that he is. Tory, he’s not a Tory at all.

  • Auldreekie

    A lot of truth in this. We Scots feel we are a nation: whatever our historical internal differences, we reckon these could have been worked out over time.. But England’s overbearing presence and desire to control these islands obstructed that.

    • Bertie

      That’s probably because Scotland’s population is 5.29m, taking up 1/3 of land mass of UK, abnd England population is 55m+ –

      Hard for the latter not to be “overbearing presence” really.

      Wouldn’t go as far as to say “Our desire to control these islands” obstructed any chance of working out our differences given we bailed you out,and have been subsidising you since the Union.

      In fact the English colonial expedition was going perfectly well, the Scots was floundering in bankruptcy……yet, post bail out, together we ruled the world!

      Who’d have thought that…….

      The time has come to split.too much bad blood on both sides.

      • The Bogle

        Scotland is not Ireland, which had good reason to split from the UK.

        In Scotland, a majority, albeit not conclusive, of the people of Scotland, rather than the Scottish people, voted for the Union.

        It is disgusting how the SNP is wilfully fomenting discord and how some in England are taking the bait. The time has come to stick together and for the people of Scotland to reject Ms Sturgeon’s next referendum, though more resolutely.

        • Jambo25

          Tell me how the SNP are “wilfully fomenting discontent” and how “some in England are taking the bait.”?: innocently no doubt and forced into it by evil Scot nats.

          • cartimandua

            We the English are fed up with Barnett. Even if they got all the oil revenue it wouldn’t cover their NHS bill.

          • Jambo25

            Admittedly Barnet isn’t a nice place.

          • justejudexultionis

            Have you tried Enfield?

          • Jambo25

            Many years ago I rather naively thought that some of the ropier places in south Fife and the West of Scotland were the worst places in the UK. Then I moved south for a number of years and came in contact with some of the real urban wastelands of North London and other areas. I still doubt that Enfield is as bad as Luton. That is a toilet.

          • Gerschwin

            Not been to Kilsyth then Django, I have.

          • Jambo25

            Yep. That’s why I wrote the first sentence. Do you have difficulty with this reading thing?

          • Gerschwin

            You didn’t. You were non specific Django. Did you not learn to express yourself properly with your 25 MAs?

        • Bertie

          54% to 46%…that’s some significant minority that dont favour the Union and want to leave.

          “It is disgusting how the SNP is wilfully fomenting discord and how some in England are taking the bait”

          I concur regarding the first part – what is equally outrageous is that no one else in the UK is getting a vote on the matter. Apparently the votes of the other 59-60 million odd people don’t matter as it’s all a Scottish centric question – which simply isn’t true.

          “how some in England are taking the bait.”

          Could just be a case of the patience of the English being finally worn down from all the Anti English jibes we’ve been subjected to over the last 30+ years 🙂

          “The time has come to stick together and for the people of Scotland to reject Ms Sturgeon’s next referendum, though more resolutely.”

          I think the time of the Union is over – The SNP have seen to that.

          History has also moved on, the Union is no longer the power it once was, nor a necessity in making the world a better, safer more democratic place..This charge passed over to the USA post WW1/WW2, and will soon move to the benevolent Chinese.

          As the Labour vote collapses in Scotland, with the SNP set to take 50+seats methinks the people of Scotland are embracing Miss Sturgeon with open arms. As soon as she starts dictating and blackmailing Milliband it’s game over – the English wont like it and it will see English/Scottish relations plumb new lows.

          • Tom M

            “….I concur regarding the first part – what is equally outrageous is that
            no one else in the UK is getting a vote on the matter. Apparently the
            votes of the other 59-60 million odd people don’t matter as it’s all a
            Scottish centric question – which simply isn’t true…..”
            Are you seriously suggesting that Scotland a sovereign nation should seek permission to leave the Union from English, Welsh and NI voters? In passing I am a Scot born and bred and I did not get a vote as I don’t live there anymore.
            Personally I think Scottish Independence is a done deal and is all over bar the shouting. I believe that it will now be a slow crawl towards the exit door. Something like the “closer political union” strategy of the EU and their steady creeping progress towards it. This from one who wishes the Union to remain.

          • Bertie

            “Are you seriously suggesting that Scotland a sovereign nation should seek permission to leave the Union from English, Welsh and NI voters”

            And you think it’s right that it is only Scotland that should decide – 5.29m versus the other 55m +

            Don’t forget we are talking one sovereign nation dictating to the other members of the Union.

            There should have been a vote available to ALL.

            ” In passing I am a Scot born and bred and I did not get a vote as I don’t live there anymore. ”

            yes – I heard even Scots living in London weren’t allowed to vote but new migrants to Scotland, 16 year olds and English residents were. Clearly ridiculous!

            “Personally I think Scottish Independence is a done deal and is all over bar the shouting. I believe that it will now be a slow crawl towards the exit door. Something like the “closer political union” strategy of the EU and their steady creeping progress towards it. This from one who wishes the Union to remain.”

            Yup concur. Union is over, its inevitable. Served its purpose and the constituent parts want their own independence. Fair enough. What I resent is the rest of the UK not a getting a vote either way as it affects us just as much. Eg Nuclear bases,naval bases, Armed forces, split of national debt, border controls! Etc etc.

            “This from one who wishes the Union to remain.”

            Used to feel that way but now I’ll be glad when Scotland leaves. Relations with English soured beyond repair I regret to say. Pity, what a great Union it was.

        • justejudexultionis

          ‘wilfully fomenting discord’ —

          What, and the Tories haven’t been doing that for decades with their anti-northern, anti-Scottish, anti-Welsh policies? The Tory-led centralisation of power in London and the south-east is destroying the union, not the SNP.

    • The Bogle

      And a divided nation split between Highlanders and Lowlanders, which has left wounds still sore.

      • Jambo25

        “Nonsense on stilts.”, to quote a much overrated English writer.

        • cartimandua

          Go and speak to the people in the Outer Hebrides. They did not vote SNP who sold them out to the EU.

          • Jambo25

            Actually the Western Isles is represented by a Gaelic speaking SNP MP. Next!

          • You just got owned, old thing. As Jambo schooled you, it is very much SNP territory. That makes you officially clueless and a candidate for the prestigious annual Foot-in-Mouth award.

            The constituency is Na h-Eileanan an Iar, and the seat is held by Angus MacNeil of the SNP.

          • justejudexultionis

            SAOR ALBA. THA SINN DEISEIL!

        • Gerschwin

          1. Philosopher not writer.
          2. So what if he was English?
          3. Therefore it’s another QED against you Django ( you haven’t a hope in getting that one it goes back a few days).

  • SNP UPRISING

    An unfortunate, “we English”‘ article.

    • Damon

      We British from south of the border would agree with you on that. (Although Parris always writes elegantly.)

    • John M

      Why is it unfortunate?
      Or are you one of the people who denies the English even exist in the first place?

  • Paul Ryan

    English and Scottish have a common grievance. That of being deprived of land, by the rentiers. The Scottish are finally having a debate about land reform and ownership and the SNP are to be applauded for this. Its a debate we need in England too The ‘land rents’ need to be re-socialised for the ‘common good’ rather than captured for the benefit of the few.

    • Ivan Ewan

      Like a return to Feudalism, you mean?

  • Hugh_Oxford

    The way the English Tories manufactured Scotland’s departure from the Union is an act of genius that will go down in the annals of history. Pure dead brilliant.

    • davidofkent

      ‘ … Scotland’s departure from the Union …’ When was that? I feel positively elated!

  • cartimandua

    Reading Parris makes me feel physically sick. It is NOT TRUE that Englishness is only the result of some irrational anti foreign bigotry.
    He forgets perhaps that English families survived WW2 by working with other English families first .

    • Hegelman

      And with Indians.

  • Aporia

    The connection between the collective sense of grievance that shoots through the SNP narrative and Scottish national identity is tenuous. What appears to be ‘anti-English’ sentiment is more often ‘anti-Westminster’ sentiment, with the caveat that Westminster is predominantly English; in other words, it’s an opposition to English dominance in power, but not to the English people.

    Since this sentiment is apparently shared by less than half of the population, it can hardly be called Scotland’s ‘national identity’. If this were Scotland’s basis for its national identity then, as a Unionist, I couldn’t possibly identify as Scottish. Which I do. This sense of grievance, which the majority of Scots do not share, is the basis for solidarity and identity among Scottish Nationalists, not Scottish nationals.

    That’s not to say, though, that the SNP do not capitalise on Scotland’s national identity. But there’s a real sense, among Unionists at least, that this is a hijack, not an exemplification. The sense of grievance towards Westminster existed, without a nationalistic bent, well before the SNP’s rise (similarly to the rest of the UK); what appears to be the current ‘Scottish national identity’ is simply this sense of grievance expressed through the SNP’s manufactured, nationalistic narrative of ‘Scotland vs. England’.

    • Josh Cook

      “the collective sense of grievance that shoots through the SNP narrative and Scottish national identity is tenuous” oh not it’s not. Have you ever been on twitter?

  • James

    Scotland is a village getting to big for its boots.

    • justejudexultionis

      No, I think you’re confusing it with London.

  • davidofkent

    There is only one sensible thing to do when faced with victimhood masquerading as nationalism. Let them go. Let Scotland be fully independent, running their country on their own with their own resources and with no guarantees from England. The same applies to the victimhood aspirations of Wales. Let them go with no access to English money and services. The next thing to do is to refuse to allow them back in when it all goes wrong for them.

    • justejudexultionis

      You seem to harbour great hatred towards the Scots and Welsh – the ugly face of English nationalism, perhaps?

  • CornishExile

    Matthew Parris’s writings are entirely bimodal – either he writes with a great deal of insight, or a great deal of tosh. This article is a case of the latter.

    His thesis is based on a Scotland that is greatly obsessed with England – it’s not. Scotland has discovered that it can leverage its inalienable nationhood to order things differently. But it is an independence of action that is desired, not some overwhelming Braveheart national identity which scarcely exists.

    It’s been repeated many times, there is a majority in Scotland for Devo max, possibly leading to Full Fiscal Autonomy, or other states of self-management. A Federal UK would be acceptable I expect. Why can’t conservative writers accept this truth?

    What surprises me most is how the John Bull emotions of an Edwardian age Tory party always overcomes the official conservative ideology. Surely Matthew Parris and other conservatives should welcome people striving for self-reliance and self-governance.

    Stop making bogeys out of Scotland, or you’ll achieve what you state you most hate in both nations.

    • justejudexultionis

      Great post. The Tories are actually pushing Scotland towards independence by stoking fear and hatred, demonising the SNP and refusing even to contemplate a federal constitutional structure that is, frankly, the only way to save the union…

  • The underlying racism in many of these articles and posts is troubling. Scotland and Scots have been thoroughly “othered”.

    The folk who win parliamentary seats in the election in Scotland, are the voice of their constituents. They are literally the embodiment of the people’s will.

    It won’t be the SNP Cameron et al would seek to bar from influence and power, rather it would be millions of Scots who would become disenfranchised under the Tories proposed apartheid legislation.

    Hard to shake the notion that the Tories are doing everything possible to engineer the great ungluing of this union.

    • Hugh_Oxford

      They absolutely are. The English Tories have far too much to gain from the opportunities the rise of Scottish Nationalism affords.

    • justejudexultionis

      It started with their beloved Thatcher. Nobody has contributed more powerfully to the cause of Scottish nationalism over the last forty years than that ignorant money-worshipping devil.

  • John Swan

    What a load of tripe, the scots don’t regard the English as the enemy, we are simply sick of Westminster politics and the Scottish branch of the Labour party who when in government in Scotland still ruled according to their Westminster masters, so we kicked them out and gave the snp a chance and they have done more in 8 years than Labour did in 40.

    • michael

      -So why are the SNP so gleeful at the chance to give the English electorate a hard time?-
      -Accepting that Scottish prudence has formed the backbone of the SNP’s successful administration … Why NS’s scary narrative of fiscal delinquency south of the border?

      • John Swan

        Sorry Michael you have been reading too much anti snp based media, there is no snp master plan against the English, they simply prioritise spending in different areas from their budget that’s why they are so popular in Scotland, they work for the people not themselves which unfortunately seems to be the Westminster philosophy.

        • michael

          Fair comment until you examine the ultimate ends…separation, then NS’s divisive ‘one nation’ politics as a means to these ends becomes abundantly clear. AS’s, winding up the southerners, continued by NS plays well to the local gallery.
          But perhaps you’ve got it completely wrong and the Scots just love us to bits.

          • John Swan

            All I can say is we live up here and know what the snp is all about, I don’t deny we want independence but we are a nation not a region of England, is it really so wrong for us to want to govern ourselves especially when Westminster doesn’t work for us , what you are reading is ever so skewed, I have many family living in England does that mean I hate them, certainly not, we simply feel that whether it be tory or labour in truth its just more of the same old lets carry on with the same old tired politics which don’t work, Scotland’s needs are very different to many areas in England and they are constantly overlooked, they moan about the Barnet formula ok well give us full fiscal autonomy, no you cant have that even though you want to fully fund yourself there will a financial black hole, ok well give us the power to develop the economy then give us FFA, NO ! they moan about us wanting to reduce airport duty tax because it will affect English based airports, well did you know I had to drive to London to fly to Florida because it was so dear to fly from Glasgow because our rate of airport duty tax is so much higher, the list is endless you just don’t hear about it, then you wonder why we want Independence. All this bad press is just designed to keep the old guard in charge that’s all.

          • michael

            The SNP are not the party of Independence. Switching Westminster for Brussels is merely separation.

          • f_sizer

            I see comments about Air Passenger Duty and how it’s higher in Scotland and feel the need to comment. APD is a UK tax, so it is the same in Scotland as it is England. The difference in price is just down to economics; there are more people using the London airports so passengers using them benefit from economies of scale. You would likely find the same difference if you flew from Manchester. That is not something that Westminster has created to hinder Scotland, there are 25million people within an hour of London airports whereas there are 5million in the whole of Scotland. The benefit of this, is that the money raised in London by Air Passenger Duty is shared across the UK. I agree that this should be devolved to the airport region to attract business and promote growth – not many in England will argue with you but why would you choose to separate in order to improve the situation. As part of the Smith commission APD is being devolved to the Scottish government so if anything those in Manchester and Birmingham should feel aggrieved – they are the forgotten voices in all of this! There are massive benefits of being part of a bigger economy that are hard to see on a day to day basis but surely the drop in oil price highlights this? Scotland being massively dependent on oil taxation would have just taken a serious financial hit had she been independent. You say you have family in England – are you happy to make them foreigners when they visit you? The reason for trying to avoid FFA is that if (and I mean if not when) a Scottish government, sometime in the future, get out the credit card and start spending, racking up debt along the way, the people of the rest of the UK would be the ones paying to pick up the pieces. Please look at what the SNP say – on the one hand they will reduce taxes to become more competitive, like Ireland, on the other hand they will increase spending and have a socialist state like Norway. The two are incompatible and frankly citizens of those countries would love to have the variety of opportunities we have in our United Kingdom but this is what the SNP are campaigning to take from you. I am proudly British, from England, and I agree with the author of this article that in Scotland, maybe not from you, John, there is a resentment of the English. look at the average football crowd in England and Scotland. I know that I have cheered on Scotland to qualify for the Euro’s but I cannot ever imagine a Scot reciprocating.

          • John Swan

            The main reason most want Indy is Westminster not hatred of the English ect, we want a different type of politics, we want trident out of our country which is 7 miles from my home as the crow flies and a chance to develop and attract business to Scotland, as for anti English bias, I dare say there is an element of people who don’t like the English but I assure you its minimal as there will be English who don’t like scots, both sets are morons, the football thing is tongue in cheek honestly. As I said earlier the snp work for the people that’s why they are so popular.

  • BARROSO

    I don’t consider you English for one second Mathew. You have no connection with the country I know, in fact you clearly despise it. And if you bothered to think about it for a second you may realise that large parts of England are becoming united against a common enemy- people like you.

    • justejudexultionis

      Parris is a Londoner, not an Englishman.

    • Hegelman

      “I don’t consider you English for one second Mathew.”

      Never mind, Mathew. I do.

  • James

    Farage has got the right idea on the b formula.

  • Gilbert White

    One of the barrel load of carpet baggers who descended on our gentle country , remember when the Krays were the only show in town, the only gangsters? Peter Gain, or Hain, Diane Abbott, Peter the gay hermit and loads of others we need to thank profusely for their enrichment of our sewage system.

  • blingmun

    So much waffle and intellectual posturing when all Matthew really wanted to say was: “Dear Reader, From now on I want you to associate Ukip with national paranoia”.

  • Peter Gardner

    Matthew Parris has a point. Look at Australia, a country whose defining nationhood was born in defeat at Gallipoli: sacrifice, a sense of fairness, and mateship. None of these is peculiar to Australia, but if you’re Australian it is patriotic to think so.

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