Forget the Hogwarts Express. Three times a year, I get on a train at London Kings Cross and make a physics-defying journey towards Montrose in Angus, the Scottish town where I lived for the first 17 years of my life. Thanks to the East Coast Main Line, a single direct train takes me through the North London suburbs, over Lincolnshire plains, past Yorkshire market towns, and alongside Northumberland beaches.
By the time I cross the Forth and then the Tay, everything is changed: not just the passenger accents, or landscape, or weather, or light — but also the train itself. I would swear the carriage somehow shrinks. And time bends too. By the time I arrive at the tiny station and alight to the familiar sound of Arctic geese in the tidal basin right next to the platform, it feels like I’ve travelled, if not to an earlier time, then certainly to a different one.
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A coastal town of 12,000 people, where many of my schoolmates found work offshore in the oil industry, I thought of Montrose last week as Sturgeon delivered her conference speech 40 miles up the road in Aberdeen. Among her key messages was the announcement of a new £50 million award to Aberdeen and surrounding areas from a government fund called Just Transition. This was not, as some might have worried given the SNP’s current preoccupations, a forward-thinking plan to make Aberdonians more non-binary, but rather a fund dedicated to helping the North East move away from oil and ultimately to make Aberdeen “the net zero capital of the world”.
As usual with the SNP, pesky details about the fast-changing status of Scottish oil in the face of Europe’s current energy crisis were unacknowledged in favour of a soothingly principled-sounding headline. Other progressive lures in Sturgeon’s speech included strong support for refugees, much lamenting about lost EU membership, and motherly requests that everyone get their Covid booster. There was also the requisite Tory-bashing, anticipated by Sturgeon the day before with her statement: “I detest the Tories and everything they stand for.”
How did this all go down in Montrose? My hometown is probably one of the most SNP-friendly in the country. Even when SNP MPs were few and far between, we had one in Angus for much of my childhood. Many — perhaps even most — people I know there are staunchly pro-independence. And yet, as you might expect in a place where farming, fishing and oil have shaped the economy, and where golf club membership is practically mandatory from birth, the Montrose civic character is quite far from the rainbow flag-waving ecowarrior to whom the SNP seems to want to appeal.
The main rival for the SNP in Angus is not Labour but the Tories, perpetually edged into second place (apart from one brief period in power between 2017-19). Generally, Montrosians are cautious, wry, and not easily impressed with flamboyant gestures — and this includes the few natural Labour voters I know there, who are more into nationalising the railways than taking the knee. It’s true that there are a few blue-haired teenagers around these days, but I assume it’s a bit like back in 1987, when I bought myself a BOY London baseball hat and matching sweatshirt on an intrepid foray to Kensington High Street. Back under the grey skies of Montrose, I looked ridiculous and everyone knew it.
Down in Holyrood, the SNP continues to pursue its own ludicrously incongruent fashion item — otherwise known as revising the Gender Recognition Act in favour of self-ID. Blithely ignoring the evidenced concerns of many women — famous and not-so-famous — Sturgeon continues to present this policy as a mere bureaucratic formality, sensibly ironing out a few wrinkles in the existing Act in a way that only morally bankrupt deplorables could possibly object to. Actually, though, her Bill proposes that any Scottish man can legally become a woman pretty much whenever he likes, with practically no meaningful strings attached. According to almost any local standard other than the one set by (mostly English) Edinburgh University students, that’s clearly the project of a total bampot.
It cannot be overemphasised how poorly this culturally radical, sense-defying policy fits with the temperament of the average Scot — and not just in Angus. Much of Scotland remains what it has been for decades: family-oriented, communitarian, and socially conservative compared to the average metrosexual liberal type. Scottish people may be economically more Left-wing than UK voters but they aren’t more culturally liberal.
At the moment, the SNP are making much of recent findings from the British Social Attitudes survey suggesting that 52% of the population now back independence; perhaps unsurprisingly, they say less about other social trends indicated in the last few years, suggesting that there are significant qualms about uncontrolled immigration or that support for the death penalty is higher in Scotland than the UK national average. Indeed, this is perhaps what you might expect in a place where local communities are still relatively strong. For there to be insiders, there has to be outsiders.
But to marvel at this mismatch between SNP luxury beliefs and the more parsimonious sensibilities of voters is to ignore the distorting influence of the biggest and baddest outsider of all: the one just over the border. For, although it has become relatively taboo to say so, whatever the official talk of civic rather than ethnic nationalism, a big motivator for SNP supporters in Scotland is still animosity towards the English. You can’t raise a population on endless stories about bloody historical injustices at the hands of their ethnic neighbours and then expect them to feel irenic. Certainly, I couldn’t fail to be aware of the enmity during my childhood, where my Southern parentage and wandering accent made me a constant target for cries of “English snob” at school.
Scratch the surface of grassroots SNP support and — not always but frequently — you’ll find slow-burning disdain, perhaps all the stronger for often being suppressed in favour of a more polite narrative. It’s usually confined to living rooms and pubs, but gets permissibly unleashed during football tournaments via support for that other national team, Anyone-But-England. And of course, as Sturgeon knows, an equally traditional means of expressing your feelings in this direction is to say how much you hate the Tories.
In the Scottish cultural imagination, the archetype of the sort of English man or woman that is most hated — Southern, posh-accented, privately-educated, and prone to seeing the country primarily in terms of its potential for invitations to hunting lodges — coincides significantly with the sort of Tory MP the membership still seems to prefer. Everybody knows that in saying you hate the latter, there’s at least the suggestion that you hate the former too. For some extreme nationalist groups, such as All Under One Banner and Siol nan Gaidheal, the equivalence is made without embarrassment.
Once you understand that, unconsciously or otherwise, a contrarian anti-English sentiment implicitly powers many SNP decisions, a lot of other things become clearer too. You better understand how a party attached to sovereignty and self-determination can be so rhetorically keen on EU membership without perceived conflict; or why Scottish Covid policies were reliably more draconian than in England; or how an otherwise astute politician like Sturgeon could become so psychologically wedded to a baffling policy like self-ID. Though of course it isn’t the whole story, part of the answer is Any-Policy-But-England’s, and a passive-aggressive game of always being seen to stay on the right side of nice, with England inevitably cast as the nasty villain to Scotland’s noble but wounded hero.
In the case of self-ID, the knock-on costs are likely to be borne by ordinary Scottish women and girls, among them the further dismantling of single-sex services proudly built up by Scottish women for other women since the Seventies. Such is the naked contempt for women’s interests here, it’s tempting to see the whole project as a fig-leaf for deep-rooted misogyny. But if SNP supporters don’t already care about the present government’s many failures to govern well in practice, it isn’t clear why they would hold them accountable at the ballot box for self-ID either. Sticking it to the English will continue to be the more compelling goal for many voters over other practical considerations. And this highlights another way in which radical transactivism and Scottish nationalism can be a good fit, at least emotionally if not rationally. In practice, both can be a politics of resentment, pretending to be something finer.