A Wee Identity Crisis

By Alexander McCall Smith, the author, most recently, of “The Right Attitude to Rain” (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 11/03/07):

THE one sure way to irritate a Scotsman is to call him an Englishman. That happens to Scots all the time when they travel abroad, and many of them feel as strongly about it as Hercule Poirot felt when people called him a Frenchman. “Belgian,” the great detective would say, with polite emphasis, mustache bristling. And of course it would be unwise to call a man in green on the streets of New York City on St. Patrick’s Day an Englishman.

There’s an old Scottish toast, lightly ironic in its tone but reflecting quite a strong sense of Scottish specialness. It goes like this: “Here’s tae us; wha’s like us?” (Here’s to us; who’s like us?) One of the answers to this has always been: “Damn few — and they’re a’ deid!” (Damn few, and they’re all dead!)

But now comes the intriguing evidence from geneticists, particularly from Stephen Oppenheimer and Bryan Sykes at the University of Oxford, that the people of the British Isles are more closely related than the history books had suggested. According to these scientists, the core populations of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales are of very much the same stock, with only minor add-ons at the edge from Viking and other invasions. So being Scottish is not, in genetic terms, all that different from being English.

If we are to believe Drs. Oppenheimer and Sykes, then the new answer to the old toast might be: “Many actually — including the English!”

The scientific news is especially provocative this year, because in May the people of Scotland will elect a new Parliament. This Parliament is not the one at Westminster — with the iconic clock tower and Big Ben — but a Parliament in Edinburgh, which was opened in 1999 in direct response to a widely perceived desire in Scotland for more self-government. In Scotland, a great many people see themselves as Scots first, and as British second. Some think that the whole notion of Britishness is out of date and pointless. The Scottish National Party, which some polls suggest just might win the May elections (or at least be in a position to enter a coalition government), wants to re-establish Scotland as an independent state within the European Union. This is the vision of Scotland as being something like Norway, but a bit farther south, and physically joined to England.

What is happening in Scotland reflects, to a greater or lesser extent, a cultural and political argument that has been rumbling for a long time in other parts of the British Isles. Ireland, which was under English rule of one form or another from the 12th century, a much-resented indignity, eventually asserted its independence in the early 20th. The Irish had no doubt, it seemed, that they were a separate people, and used some rather fine songs to make the point.

In Wales and Scotland, which had been more integrated into the English-dominated United Kingdom, there were movements that similarly resented what they saw as the subjugation of their culture, but most of the population were happy to go along with the Union. In a way, the situation was not dissimilar to the one in Quebec, where most people appear content to remain part of the Canadian federation. Now, however, the “united” in the United Kingdom’s name is rather more threatened.

Does the new genetic evidence take the wind out of the sails of the cultural nationalists in Scotland, or those in Ireland? To an extent, it must, because such people are often convinced that the Irish and Scots are a quite different breed, that their ancestors came from somewhere other than wherever it is that the English came from. But if that is shown not to be true, then the differences — however profound and important to cultural identity — are demoted to the incidental variations that flow from living in separate places and developing distinct local cultures.

If the message from these geneticists is accepted, then the whole notion of Britishness and its political embodiment, the United Kingdom, might summon up some of the confidence it needs if the Union is to survive. It may chip away at the sense of separateness upon which the nationalist cause in Scotland relies for its success.

Ultimately, of course, this sort of genetic disclosure could be very helpful for everyone, and at a universal level. The more we are shown to be related, the more our sense of shared humanity must come to the fore. That may be hopelessly idealistic, but it was very much the message that the great poet Robert Burns gave to the world. And he was Scottish. Or was he?