Could an Englishman ever be First Minister of Scotland? That’s the question the Scottish Labour party are having to grapple with this week after Richard Leonard announced his candidacy to succeed Kezia Dugdale as leader. A former trade union organiser and chair of Scottish Labour’s executive, Leonard sounds like the perfect Corbyn candidate – until you get to the fact that he is also English.
Leonard’s opponents have been quick to jump on his nationality – briefing out that his English heritage is no small fry. They claim his Yorkshire accent could make it ‘hard’ for him to ‘connect’ with the people the party must win over to increase their vote share. One opponent goes so far as to say that picking an Englishman would be ‘disastrous’. The Conservatives – the supposed party of the union – have also got in on the action, with one senior Scottish Conservative joking that Ruth Davidson is ‘authentic, working class and Scottish’ compared to the Labour candidates.
Even if slightly hyperbolic, they’re not wrong to point out that pitching an English candidate presents unique challenges. A partial Scot myself (born in Aberdeen but with an English accent thanks to English parents), I can sympathise with Leonard’s predicament. While it’s not the case that Scots are suspicious of anyone who isn’t a cardboard cut out of William Wallace, an English accent can make you stand out – and not always in a good way. There were plenty of times at my Scottish state school that I wished I had an accent which would have allowed me to blend in more.
Often the England/Scotland rivalry is light-hearted – like the trips to the pub to cheer on whichever team is playing against England – but in recent years it’s got more visceral as issues like Scottish independence have been debated. As J K Rowling – born in England but living in Scotland – discovered, issuing a view on independence goes down particularly badly with some nationalists if you’re not deemed Scottish enough to have one. The SNP have done little to tackle the anti-English narrative that can define parts of Scottish politics. When Dave Doogan, deputy leader for the SNP in Perth and Kinross, referred to ‘red coats’ earlier this year and claimed the country had been ‘under the heel of foreign influence and power for 300 years’, no disciplinary action followed.
However, if being English does impact Leonard’s chances at becoming leader, some of the blame for that situation is with Labour. The anti-English rhetoric that makes up a lot of the SNP attitude to Westminster and devolution was aided by Scottish Labour. Throughout the Eighties, Labour argued that the Conservative party was illegitimate as it didn’t have enough Scottish MPs – that proved a gateway drug for the nationalists. Of course – by way of disclaimer – we can also point some blame at Westminster and the way in which Scotland has sometimes been overlooked in the past.
Although devolution has become associated with Scottishness, there’s no reason in theory why someone born in England couldn’t be trusted to put the interests of the Scottish people first. We’ve had Scottish Prime Ministers and there are also plenty of examples of politicians taking on important positions in countries that are not their birthplace – such as Julia Gillard, the former Australian Prime Minister from Wales. If Leonard does win the leadership, his rival politicians ought to consider the anti-English narrative they would be feeding if they were to go on the attack over his nationality. After all, it’s the very same sentiment that unionists will have to fight against if and when the issue of independence returns.