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A message to my English neighbours

THE last time I went abroad, I bought a kettle.

It was my small but proud contribution to international relations and the balance of trade. I didn't even have to haggle. The bilateral Nectar points union is a boon, even if the kettle was made in China.

The fog at the border was so thick when we crossed I half-expected the message board above the road to flash "Metaphor Ahead", but it didn't come to that. Northumberland is as familiar now as it is friendly. The folk yield happily to my demands for domestic appliances to be placed under fully democratic Scottish control. I don't even have to threaten to sack Berwick.

Clearly, my atavistic ethnic nationalist urges are defective. Perhaps I haven't been practising enough. Either that or I'm a dupe of forces so dark they pass for invisible.

All these years writing about politics, history, people and culture and I never knew I was being used. Perhaps I'm a sleeper, a Morningside Candidate, waiting for the signal to embark on a berserk Anglophobic rage. Or perhaps not.

When the woman in the shop certifies the domestic appliance as "canny", and says she uses the brand herself, we fall to talking about the weather. They have that, too. Kettles, fogs, families, football, irritating neighbours, hopes and fears, communities, taxes and pundits you could see far enough: folk abroad have got the lot. You feel at home among them. The feeling has nothing to do with my desire for an independent country. It has as much to do with hatred as Nigel Farage has to do with charm.

Some would have it otherwise. I used to think the depicting of all nationalism (apart from your own) as a horror waiting to happen was just selective amnesia. You know how it goes. Curse vile nationalists then belt out Land Of Hope And Glory. Stick respect for the self-determination of peoples at the start of a United Nations charter, then reserve the right to decide who qualifies. Us - goes without saying - or those hateful nationalists?

I think differently now. Increasingly, the No side in Scotland's independence argument insists on just two kinds of opponent. These days this feels less like inadvertence than a purposeful libel. The game is to blacken the name of the other side and any lurid imagining will do. Some of it has a slapstick quality, some not.

So two types of Yes voter are arraigned. First there are naïve pawns with hankerings for better government or social justice who can't see they owe it to people everywhere on these islands to stick with Westminster parties just a bit longer. (Failing that, indefinitely.) Then there are those, cloaking their purpose with honeyed words, who Just Hate The English.

I still can't manage berserk rage, but I get miffed by this one. It has the technical defect of being untrue, and no-one likes being misrepresented. Since it's likely that I have had more contact with the Yes side than those recoiling in horror from the nationalist beast, I also maintain that it's generally untrue. So call me a liar or a dupe. It won't make the melodrama plausible.

Not only do I like England and its peoples, I admire them. There is much I can live without, but there's a lot to be sorted in my own country before you'll catch me in the "Scottish and proud of it" queue. I harbour the hope that pride will follow independence. I also happen to believe that England would benefit from the same process. As noted, I believe in self-determination. England too needs to get out from under the British state.

Personally, I wouldn't have started the process with a saint's day or a homily from David Cameron. For me, those are not instant vote-winners. On the other hand, England is starting from close to scratch. It's not so long since St George and his flag seemed like the property of the BNP. It is easy enough, meanwhile, to find people who give English as their nationality, but hard to find many who can give an idea of what it means.

Typically, Cameron struggled with that in remarks issued on April 23, St George's Day. The Prime Minister tied himself in knots, in fact, trying to make one text do several contradictory things. Was he marking England's day and trying to animate England's sense of itself? Was he playing shamelessly to the Ukip gallery? Was he trying to tell the Scots that his homage to Englishness was an affirmation of familial bonds within the British family? All of that.

Reaction was muted, let's say. Most comment, paid and unpaid, contained the fact that St George has a bit to go before he can compete with Patrick, Andrew and David. There was also an admirable reluctance to celebrate on command. But there was a deeper sense that Englishness is oddly abstract, strangely indefinable.

In part, it is subsumed within the idea of Britain - not in the sense of Cameron's British family, but in the old assumption that there is no important difference between England and the name attached to a land mass. In another part, Englishness faces the same problem as any identity. It is - and Scots understand this better than most - fiendishly hard to pin down.

Cameron's attempt was comical. Newcastle Brown Ale, Arsenal FC, the Cornish pasty, Downton Abbey, The Beatles. Given that April 23 is also assigned to Shakespeare as a birthday, the Prime Minister might have managed a mention of the scribbler's 450th. Instead, he went for England the brand. One tip: this doesn't work. Scottish ambivalence towards the tartan-whisky-shortbread cartoon is proof enough.

Alex Salmond used St George's Day as an opportunity to give his own account of what a family of nations might mean. As ever, the First Minister, speaking in Carlisle, sought to reassure. No actual family would be broken apart by Scotland's independence. Nipping up and down the cross-border roads would continue. Aside from raining a little on Cameron's hesitant parade, this was common sense. But it was also, perhaps, a demonstration that Scotland is further along in recovering nationhood than our neighbour.

The sentiment I hear most often from Northumberland, that too often forgotten county, is: "Take us with you." It's no better than half a joke. What I say most often to my English friends - if they're not cursing me for nihilistic nationalism - is that we have innumerable small things in common, and one big thing.

That would be the sense, growing constantly in England, that the invention called Britain obstructs all; that the British state, the nexus of Westminster, Whitehall, the City and their vested interests, is the shared problem for everyone in these islands. If you want to hear a match for the stereotypical separatist assailing "London", there are voices raised all across England and Wales and Northern Ireland.

The best advice to an English nationalist is probably simple: don't force it. Don't contrive or prescribe. People change; so do nations. All that matters is to make sure the voices of people and nations are heard. If not, the kettle boils over.

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