Scotland, North Britain and Me

“North Britain” is a compliment. I think about Scotland as “North Britain” (and England as South Britain) because these two great nations have so much more in common with one another than they do with anywhere else, and they share so much more than divides them.

My life, as it happened, started in the south. I was born in Berkshire, raised in Dorset, educated in Norfolk and employed in London and then in Oxford before moving to the north. My family, like so many on these islands, comes from all over. My grandfathers were from South Wales and Liverpool. My parents now live in Leicestershire, escaping to a bolt hole in Snowdonia whenever they can. My sister met her husband and lived with him in the Highlands before returning to England. My wife, born in Charlotte NC and raised in New York NY, moved with me to Scotland in 2003. We got married here. All our children were born here. The oldest two speak with Scottish accents and go to a wonderful (state) school in the south side of Glasgow. Football obsessed, they happily shout for Scotland, England, the Netherlands, even Spain (when it suits them) and, like all decent football fans, they take their clubs much more seriously than any countries, and they shout loud, long and equally for Rangers and Arsenal (an auld alliance).

I’ve lived in Scotland for a decade. Most of the most important events of my life have happened while I’ve been here, including marriage and four births. But I’m not a Scot. Unlike my sons, when I watch Scotland play football or rugby I feel vaguely pitying and largely bored. As amused when they score as when they concede, I can never overlook that it is not my team. On the other hand, I cannot bring myself to shout much for England now, either. So it was a rare joy, in the summer of 2012, to find that a new team had got under my skin set my pulse racing. Team GB. I’ve never been an Olympics fan — it’s been football all the way for me — but here was the diversity, the dazzle, and the pan-UK mix that parochial “international” football on these islands has lacked for years.

I love living in Scotland. I love living in Glasgow — easily the finest city I’ve lived in anywhere — and I love living here despite the fact that I am not from here. Glasgow (like much of Scotland) is full of people who have never had the opportunity or desire to leave. They are here by default rather than by choice. I chose to move here, and I chose to stay. I made Scotland my home and a home for my half British half American half Jewish half not so Jewish family.

I love it because it offers me a slice and a flavour of my own country that I could never have tasted in the south.

I understand that not everyone feels this way. Many English folk already regard Scotland as foreign. Closely related, perhaps, but foreign nonetheless. It’s hardly surprising, given the power of the contemporary cultural iconography — the kilt above all, and the constant drone of international football and rugby. Some Scots return the favour, often with interest. Their whole lives are here. All their relatives. All their friends. They were born here, educated here. They have never left. They have visited the Med or Florida as often as London. They are Scottish through and through, Scottish to their core, utterly Scottish, only Scottish.

I respect that this is how many Scots genuinely feel, and I get that as many people in England and Scotland feel English or Scottish more than they feel British. But I feel sorry for them. I feel sorry for the Little Englanders who are so terrified of loss that they can never see what has been gained. And I feel sorry for the Scots who go through life ignorant of what it means to know that Glasgow and Liverpool and Belfast have more in common with each other than any of these cities has in common with London. Or that Edinburgh and York and Oxford and Brighton are closer siblings to each other than Edinburgh could ever be to Dundee or Inverness or Motherwell. Looking back on my past I feel sorry in the same way for my old self, my English self. The one who spent 33 years within 115 miles of London’s magnetic pull and who thought, quite wrongly, that he knew the difference between the English and the British (when all he really knew was the difference between the south-west and the south-east).

That English self no longer exists. I may or may not stay here, in North Britain. I may one day return to the south. But even if I do, I won’t be going home. Home is already here. Home is Britain.