Last month, when protestors in saltire and tartan masks stood at the Scottish Border near Berwick bearing placards telling the English to turn back and keep Scotland Covid-free, a shudder ran up many spines. Little wonder Nicola Sturgeon immediately distanced herself from such crass behaviour. It was a far cry from the usual welcome offered by a country that prides itself on being hospitable and big-hearted.

It is many centuries since Scotland and England were at war, when we were left reeling after Edward I departed in triumph, taking the Stone of Destiny with him, or Henry VIII ravaged the Borderlands and hoped to burn Edinburgh to the ground. On both sides the list of battles and defeats, raids and reprisals, is long and ugly. Fortunately, these events are in the distant past. Unfortunately, it seems that in some quarters old grievances fester.

Manny Singh, one of the founders of the All Under One Banner movement for Independence (AUOB), has recently spoken of his reasons for leaving last year. Foremost were bigoted comments by a few who, he said, talked about kicking the English out of Scotland and stopping them buying holiday homes. He calls such attitudes “ethnic nationalism”, and describes them as “the dumbest thing ever”. Some also joked about the colour of his skin.

Countering Singh’s claims, AUOB has said that he was dismissed last summer “following a conduct hearing”, and has stressed the movement’s lack of prejudice, “in respect of race, religion, gender, age, sexual orientation, disability, nationality or ethnicity”. It also says Singh’s allegations are untrue.

Even if no member of AUOB has uttered a word against the English, there can’t be many of us who have not heard someone, at some point, speak of them disparagingly, or been the butt of such remarks. It’s nothing like as common as it once was, but diehards survive across the political spectrum, both for and agin independence, and those of no political persuasion at all, who persist in seeing the English as incomers and, by implication, as some sort of threat.

I grew up in a town 30 miles north of the Border, where classmates jack-booted across the playground in reference to my surname, and shouted Sassenach whenever I spoke. My mother was from London, and I had inherited her vowels. My savvier brother and sister learned to camouflage their heritage by becoming bilingual, but I never saw the point. What was wrong with the English? Some years later, when I first spent time in Aberdeenshire, I discovered that you didn’t need to hail from far away to be viewed with suspicion. Coming from the lowlands made me a soothmoother and thus dubious. As, it seemed, was anyone from Montrose and beyond.

Scots who settled or travelled in England were mercilessly mocked long before the days of James Boswell, when Samuel Johnson famously said, “Much may be made of a Scotchman, if he be caught young”. In those shamelessly partisan and un-PC times, you could understand Scottish sentiment against the English as a relic from before the Union of the Crowns. The way Scotland was spoken of could be so dismissive and cruel, it’s no surprise it encouraged a knee-jerk response towards the whole race, even if many of them lived lives similar to ours, and had more in common with us than we cared to admit.

Today, however, to express dislike of the English is as inexcusable as any other form of racism and bigotry. What would Scotland be without the contribution of our neighbours who have moved here? A great deal poorer culturally, socially and financially. Indeed, analysis of the population’s DNA would probably show that the majority of us have some English ancestry, not to mention countless other nationalities within the mix. The more the merrier, surely.

Perhaps the worst aspect of any outburst of anti-English opinion, wherever it surfaces, is that it tarnishes the entire country. Not only is it ignorant and aggressive, but it diminishes the argument for independence, which has inclusiveness at its heart. Who would want to vote for a future where there was any hint of discrimination in who was allowed to come here?

Thankfully, despite occasional spikes, such prejudice is increasingly rare. Yet it doesn’t always feel that way. When Scotland became a devolved nation, constant comparison was made with its big brother. For the past 21 years, political discourse has been based on how Holyrood has been faring in contrast to Westminster, be it education, health, the arts, the economy, and everything in between. To preserve the Union, it’s in Westminster’s interests to see us stumble; to gather momentum for independence, the SNP government must prove itself superior.

The pandemic has taken that competition into top gear. Barely a day passes without our response to Covid 19, and rates of infection and mortality, being discussed alongside those of a country more than 10 times our size. That Scotland often does better from this comparison is not the point, other than to emphasise the decisive leadership shown by the First Minister.

The irony is that one of the arguments for complete autonomy is to curtail the tiresome tracking of our record with that south of the Border. Independence would – or certainly should – put an end to the stale old narrative of Us and Them. Although intended to serve as a bar against which to measure our progress and deficiencies, constantly pointing to the differences between the two nations almost inevitably sounds as though we are in perpetual opposition.

Outdated though it is, an ancient sense of inferiority underpins lingering mistrust of England. That should and must evaporate if ever we take control of our own affairs. The misguided but consoling idea that Westminster is the source of all our ails will no longer be credible. Instead, we will have to take responsibility for everything we do. It will be a massive exercise in transparency and accountability, of having nobody to blame but ourselves should things go wrong.

By then, we ought to be turning not to England for comparison, but to countries of similar size, outlook and international stature, of which there are more than a few. In that scenario, soon the only thing we could reasonably hold against the English is their lion’s share of fair weather.

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