So, fellow citizens south of the Border: after the Scottish referendum, are we feeling more English, or more British?
Last Wednesday, my daughter Rocca rang me in a panic.
‘Dad, I’m really confused,’ she said. ‘I lived and worked in Edinburgh for eight years. All my Scottish friends are voting yes, they’re marching on the streets tonight and keep Facebooking me for support. What should I be thinking?’
Put on the spot, I said, rather too quickly: in my opinion, a Yes vote would be good for England and disastrous for Scotland, whereas a No vote would probably be bad for both.
My argument was unreasoned and generally facile: a Yes vote would mean cheaper prices at Asda and reduce the price of a postage stamp, because we’d no longer have to subsidise transport costs to the Scottish islands, nor would we have to pay all those Scots the additional money that the absurd Barnett formula demands. A Yes vote would quickly turn the Scottish economy into a basket case, once they’d deposited their entire national wealth into a fund to prop up their new currency.
Meanwhile, a No vote would lead to a lot of angry Glaswegians with conspiracy theories, and the Tories would try to hijack their devolution commitment to gain power for themselves by demanding a parallel deal for England. Which could spell isolation for Northern regions like ours.
Rocca was surprised. ‘So you’d vote Yes, Dad?’
‘On the contrary, I’d vote No, because I’m British, and Scotland is part of my Britishness, and if I were Scottish, being British would be part of my Scottishness. Being British outweighs any economic argument.’
She seemed satisfied: Ah, yes, we’re British, so we should keep Britain together.
Later I thought about what I’d said, and I wondered if I’d been truthful. Do I really think of myself as British, and if I do, what does that actually mean? Wiping a tear from my eye at the Last Night of the Proms? Cheering on the Union flag at the Olympics? Feeling I’m home when I land at Heathrow?
The more I thought about it, the less sure I was about what it means to be British at all. Maybe it’s because I’ve never been through a war. So I asked my Mum.
She’s 93, a child of the British Empire. She lived through the Blitz; she’s as British as rice pudding. Yesterday, over roast beef in an English pub, I asked her if she was British or English.
‘I’m English,’ she said quickly, ‘and so are you.’
So what does being British mean to her?
‘It means I’m part of a family. The Welsh, Scots and Irish are like my brothers and sisters. We may bicker, we may have family rows, but you can’t divorce your brother. It’s what family is all about.’
She is furious with the politicians for promising Scotland extra powers. But then, she thinks all Scottish devolution was a mistake.
‘Our 650 British MPs should have a duty to care about every single person, whether Scottish, Irish or Northumbrian. A Labour MP must look after his entire constituency, not just the people who voted for him. So a Welsh MP should feel responsible for the people in Norwich, or Bradford, or wherever.’
Her voice got louder and she waved a roast potato in the air as she got into her theme. People in the pub turned round to look.
‘The whole thing is crazy. We shouldn’t have promised them any extra powers. Now look at the mess Cameron is getting us into, making English people think they should have their own MPs voting separately. Next they’ll be giving taxation powers to the Cornish.’
So what does it mean for you to be British?
The 93-year-old nailed it: ‘If I go to a Scottish, or a Welsh house at 4 in the afternoon, I know I will be offered a cup of tea; if I go to a house in France, they’ll offer me a Pernod. That’s the difference. That’s what it means to be British.’
And, as she reached the climax, a small ripple of applause went round the pub.