English accents pipe up in Scottish independence debate

More than 450,000 people in Scotland were born in England

Steve West is English and almost all his extended family live in England – but that is not stopping the Edinburgh-based IT manager from campaigning enthusiastically for Scotland to vote for independence from the UK on September 18.

Mr West says independence would make Scotland more democratic, free it from British nuclear weapons and help relatives in northern England whose future he says is blighted by a remote, sclerotic Westminster system of government.

“In a way I am doing it for them,” says the IT manager, who has lived in Scotland for more than 20 years. “We really need a kick-start for constitutional change in the UK, and Scottish independence is by far the biggest chance of getting it. Independence would shake things up.”

To those who see Scottish independence as driven by old-fashioned nationalism and hostility to England, the support of Mr West and other English activists for a referendum Yes vote may seem surprising.

But issues of ethnicity or historical grievance have hardly figured in a campaign focused mainly on governance and economic policy. Anglophobia has been a strand of Scottish life for centuries, but the Scottish National party and other pro-independence groups espouse a civic version of nationalism that celebrates diversity and welcomes immigrants.

“I’m a Londoner who lives in Edinburgh – for me this is not about identity,” says Mark Bitel, who settled in Scotland a decade ago in part because of what he felt was a more communitarian mindset than in southeast England.

For Mr Bitel, the UK is a relic of empire that has had its day. “I think Scotland can be a beacon of social development,” he says.

Such enthusiasm is far from universal among English residents in Scotland. Many doubt SNP assurances that independence would not mean significant new barriers to travel or trade with the remaining UK.

Anya O’Shea, a Londoner who came to Scotland for university, says such concerns were the reason she became an activist for the Better Together cross-party campaign against independence.

“I didn’t want to feel separated from my family down south by a border,” says Ms O’Shea, 23, who now works for the campaign as a communications officer. “For me nationalism is an outdated concept. Why would you want to cut yourself off?”

Analysts say most English residents want Scotland to remain in the UK. More than 450,000 of the 5.3m people in Scotland were born in England according to the 2011 census. John Curtice, professor at Strathclyde university, says opinion polls suggest a large majority are likely to vote No in September.

The Sunday Times newspaper in May cited a Panelbase poll it commissioned to argue that English voters could “swing the result” of the referendum to a No vote, overcoming a small majority for independence among people born in Scotland.

But Mark Diffley, Scotland director for pollsters Ipsos Mori, cautions against such analysis. “The over-55s are equally against independence as people who come from England – and there are a lot more of them,” Mr Diffley says.

Any attempt to emphasise the role of English voters would be particularly sensitive given the fraught historical relationship between Scotland and England symbolised in modern times by the fierce rivalry between Scottish sports teams and their southern “auld enemy”.

Some observers believed the referendum itself could create tensions between the Scots and the English. Former UK prime minister Sir John Major recently suggested that the SNP had chosen to hold the vote close to the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn between Scotland and England in order to capitalise on “anti-English sentiment”.

There is so far no sign that ethnic strains are growing in Scotland. The number of racist incidents reported by white English people in Scotland has fallen sharply in the three years to 2012-13, according to Scottish government figures.

Mr Diffley, who comes from London and nearly a decade ago suffered an assault in Edinburgh that appeared at least partly motivated by anti-English hostility, says nothing like that has happened to him since – and nobody has questioned his involvement in referendum-related discussions or research.

Ms O’Shea says she has not met any voters while canvassing for a No vote who have made an issue of her English background. “Nobody has ever said anything about my accent on the doorsteps,” she says.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.

More on this topic

Suggestions below based on Scottish Independence

Independence light – Scotland deserves better

Last week I wrote about the forthcoming independence referendum in Kurdistan. To move from events there to what is happening in Scotland is a surreal experience. In Erbil the vote will be a deadly serious matter which could create a new country for a nation which as they say has no friends but the mountains having been a victim of international betrayal and cynicism for centuries. There is no knowing whether the Kurdish referendum will end in triumph or tragedy. In Edinburgh what should be an equally serious debate about breaking the relationship with the rest of the UK is now close to a farce.