“Throwing off the Cringe”

By Mark Smith


Dr. Mark Smith is Head of Social Work in the School of Social and Political Science at the University of Edinburgh. His particular teaching interests are Ethics and the political and  organisational context of social work. His papers, essays and articles are widely published and he is the author of Rethinking Residential Child Care. Contact Mark at mark.smith@ed.ac.uk


“Throwing off the Cringe”

As a young boy I had little reason to doubt that I was British. Some of my early memories are of the Secretary of the local Labour Party coming round our house to collect my mum and dad’s subscriptions. I think I remember watching Churchill’s death on the television and I vaguely remember watching the 1966 World Cup Final and feeling that I should be mildly pleased that England had won. My family and others like us had much to thank Harold Wilson for. My parents, both having left school at 15, were later able to go to university.

I can’t really remember when I began to feel Scottish rather than British. I know I was there by my mid-teens. In 1974 I was a paperboy when the SNP won 14 seats in the General Election. Thirty-five years on, I’m a paperboy again, this time delivering newspapers and leaflets for the ‘Yes’ campaign in the run-up to the Independence Referendum.

While the SNP’s showing in 1974 was achieved largely on the back of their ‘It’s Scotland’s Oil’ campaign, my own development of a Scottish identity rapidly moved beyond purely economic arguments to assume a cultural dimension. I began to read Scottish history. I became aware of the poets of the Scottish Literary Revival, of the folk revival spearheaded by Hamish Henderson and linked to both of these, an explicitly socialist political tradition exemplified by John MacLean.

But it was in many respects a fragile identity. It could be hard to say that you were a nationalist in those days. It elicited a metropolitan sneer – Scotland was too small, to poor, too stupid to be able to take its place among grown up countries. Were these put-downs not enough, one was further accused of narrow nationalism.

Knowing through constant reinforcement that you’re too small, too poor, too stupid, too parochial takes its toll. It can be manifest in an inferiority complex, whereby the pressure not to name your world is manifest in an inverted snobbery, what has been called ‘the Scottish cringe’.

Me and my cringe went off to university. Perhaps there was some unconscious dynamic going on but I could not have chosen a worse place than St Andrews to reinforce it. At times I felt like and may well have been a stranger in my own land. That’s not to say that I didn’t like St Andrews or find like minds – I did, and not just among fellow Scots.

One guy there, though, didn’t seem to suffer from my introspection. My introduction to student politics was a debate between the student presidents of the Labour and Tory parties but also the leader of the Federation of Student Nationalists, one Alex Salmond who was in his fourth year when I was in my first. He was as impressive then as he is now, cutting through the metropolitan arrogance of his opponents with a confidence and command of his brief that belied his Linlithgow upbringing.

During my time at St Andrews we had the first devolution referendum in 1979 and the imposition of the rule that required that 40% of the electorate needed to vote for change. And of course, while a majority voted for devolution we didn’t break the 40% barrier. As though that manipulation of the normal democratic process were not enough, 1979 also saw the election of the Thatcher Government. Oblivious to the Scottish Enlightenment, she told us there was no such thing as society. ’Stand down Margaret stand down please’ we used to sing at student union discos. But she didn’t stand down. She went on to destroy industrial Scotland. By that stage, the mid 1980s I was doing my social work training at Stirling University. My musical memory of that time was the Proclaimers ‘Letter from America – Linwood no more, Bathgate no more ….

Devolution eventually arrived in 1999. I took a group of kids from the residential unit I was managing to the reopening of the Scottish Parliament. I took my own kids up to Princes Street that evening just to walk around and to take in the significance of the moment. The poet Alasdair Gray penned (or borrowed) the epigraph ‘Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation’. For a short time I believed a better nation might be possible. But instead we got New Labour, the Iraq War and in Scotland, a narrow and punitive approach to social issues, exemplified in its approach to youth crime. Ironically, Jack McConnell’s version of devolution saw Scotland lose much of what was previously distinctive about its approach, in particular to criminal and youth justice issues. The ultimate failure of the New Labour project was, according to Bill Jordan, a moral failure; its behaviour a betrayal of those who went round houses collecting subs from working men and women.

Then in 2007, I remember standing in the street waiting for the announcement of the result of the count for the final seat to declare in the elections to the Scottish Parliament. It went to the SNP and saw the election of a minority administration. This narrow victory was followed up in 2011 by a landslide. Since then we’ve had competent government in Scotland, but also government that has established some basic social democratic values. We have free University education and will have according to Alex Salmond ‘til rocks melt wi the sun …’.  Just like other modern European nations, apart from England!

Contrast this with the policies of the posh boys in the Con Lib Westminster Government. They seem to live in a time warp; they think they can still parachute into Scotland and distribute their largesse to a nation they obviously still regard as too small, too poor, too stupid to be able to run its own affairs. Those days are gone. In the words of Hamish Henderson’s anthem ‘Freedom Come Aa’ Ye, ‘Nae mair will our bonnie callants, Merch tae war whan our braggarts crousely craw … Scotland is no longer prepared to be cannon fodder or voting fodder for an imperialistic and morally bereft London political class.

Politics is getting interesting in Scotland; progressive voices are mobilising.  Moreover, these are diverse voices, the voices of new Scots, including surprising numbers of English immigrants. They are voices of hope and of belief that we can work in the early days of a better nation. I do appreciate arguments against independence that point out that the English Regions are similarly alienated from the Westminster system. For them, Scottish independence has the potential to showcase a different kind of politics.

In any erstwhile dependency relationship there comes the John the Baptist moment when He/she must increase, I must decrease. This is what happens when kids grow up and when they eventually leave home. They need to make that break to return home more respectful and more equal in their relationship with their parents. The same is true for nations. To paraphrase Alex Salmond, England stands to lose a surly lodger and to gain a respectful neighbour. Regardless of the outcome of the Referendum vote, things will not be the same again. Scotland, politically and socially is moving in a different direction from England. No-one, to draw on the words of Patrick Pearce I think it was, can set bounds on the progress of a nation. There are those who fail to learn from history.

© 2015 Mark Smith and goodenoughcaring.com



Stuart Russon comments

My response is to the  “Throwing off the Cringe” and “The Colonised Mind” articles as the one thing that is starting to grate with me is the total lack of consideration for the future of the English and Welsh folk in all of this. As if our comrades in Scotland have just washed their hands of us. What did we do wrong? We thought we were your mates.

Broadly it seems the left supports a ‘yes’ vote and the right will vote ‘no’. So if we accept that premise I have some questions for my comrades in Scotland.

Do you care about those of us down here in England looking north and feeling a little bit let down? Many of you will have been involved with the left wing movement via the Labour Party or Trade Unions. We campaigned together but now you are just walking off and leaving us to fight alone.

I’m alright Jock, pull up the ladder.

Turns out it wasn’t a class movement after all. You were nationalists first and foremost. Will you still fight on behalf of the British working class as you used to or does the English and Welsh working class not matter anymore?

Do you feel any responsibility for the potential impact your independence has on English and Welsh working class folk? Or did they never really matter in the first place?

Also I am disconcerted by the debate seemingly focussing on the current political situation as if it is a permanent state of affairs. This isn’t a vote for Alex Salmond or the SNP or progressive politics or a more equal society. That may be the immediate impact but this is just a vote for independence. There are no other guarantees. Are you ready for the worse aspects of nationalism which will inevitably appear? Have you thought about the prospect of a tory government being elected in Scotland one day? I know you wll say ‘at least we voted for it, we chose it’ but this perhaps shows the yes choice as being purely about nationalism and not to do with a fair, equal society.

(The above is written as part of my advocacy for the devil…. If I were you I’d be voting yes, Yes, YES)

Jeremy Millar writes

Mark, I felt so many resonances with my experience of growing up in Scotland. I was taken out of school with my classmates to wave union flags as the Queen progressed from Dyce airport to Balmoral. The Imperial map was pulled down at the front of the class regularly as we were indoctrinated on the benevolent reach of the British nation

I am grateful that my English parents, in the manner of incomers, encouraged an interest in Scottish culture and history. We toured all the stone circles and castles in the north east. Something I did with my own children. I realised through my reading of history that this is not ultimately about national identity rather it is about democracy and social justice.

The people of Scotland have through their history and folk memory retained a belief that the struggle of our forebears was about throwing of an oppressive yolk that took a different form at different times but ultimately resolved itself in a notion of egalitarian freedom.

This folk memory of struggle is as vibrant in many parts of England and Wales, but unfortunately the dominance of London and the south east stifles their cries and demonises their resistance. The miner’s strike being the last stand of the working class. With communities destroyed and demoralised we see people fall prey to unmediated voices of the right utilising Imperial narratives to maintain inequality and oppression of the working people who should be coming together in common cause.

Stuart Russon’s further personal angle and reflection upon “the Scottish Cringe.”

My clearest memory from my childhood in Scotland is very precise and may not say anything about anything in particular but on a personal level it was a pivotal moment for me as an English kid moving to Scotland. It gave me confidence that I may not have had had the moment gone a different way.


My first day at Dunnottar Primary School in Stonehaven as a 10 year old just arrived from Birmingham. I felt shy and nervous and got hassle from a lad who was hostile and intimidating.

Teuchter – “Say ‘Aberdeen’”

Me – “Aberdeen”

Teuchter (to his mates) – “Ha ha, check the boys accent. Aber-Doyne, Aber-Doyne”

Me – “I didn’t say Aber-Doyne, I said Aberdeen”

Teuchter – “HA HA HAAAA. English dick… Say something else. Say Birmingham”

Me – “Birmingham”

Teuchter – “Burminum, Buuuurminoom Ha ha”

Me – “I didn’t say Burminum I said Birmingham”

Teuchter  (to his mates) – “Ha ha, what a prick…He disnae even ken he’s daein it”

Me – “What? Disney what?”

Teuchter’s mates (to teuchter) – “Ha ha, yer just a f***in teuchter, he canny understand a word o’ what yer saying ye glechit c**t”.

And with that I had accidentally ‘won’ this verbal joust and I was accepted into the group. I realised I didn’t have to change. Didn’t have to speak or act a different way, I could be myself with these folk.

Was the teuchter’s mates response to turn on their friend for sounding too Scottish/Doric when talking to the English kid something to do with ‘The Scottish Cringe’ or was it just the usual classroom mockery? I dunno, but I often look back on that very, very brief moment in my formative years and think it could have gone a different way and my whole perception of myself and the way I deal with situations could be different.  And it sends a genuine shiver through me


I had expected problems but after that initial hiccup there was nothing. I was allowed to be my English self throughout my school years with no real sense of prejudice except for in jest. Of course there were times when I deserved to be put in my place and that would be when ‘English’ would prefix whatever swear word had been selected to be spewed at me (English C**t was the top choice, followed by English W***er).

 Schmaltzy footnote – 32 years after the above occurrence I still meet the teuchter and his mates in question every year for a game of golf and a catch-up.



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