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United or divided? How the cultural differences of the English and Scots play out online

Next week, the United Kingdom will be different. Whether it’s “aye” or “naw” in the Scottish Independence referendum, there is already unstoppable momentum for greater national responsibility at Holyrood. A different democratic settlement for the English, Welsh and Northern Irish population is surely not far behind and the starting pistol has been fired on the race for a more federal form of government for the countries that make up the UK.

So given the inevitability of the English being asked to level-headedly assess their own Englishness at some time in the near future via, perhaps, elections for an English parliament, it’s worth asking the question: how different are the English and the Scots really? And for us digital types, are there really any cultural differences between the way that the Scots and the English use the internet? (Apologies to the Welsh and Irish at this stage, I’ll get to you lot in a later blog).

Are there cultural differences? The short answer is “mibbe”, but not much. Search engine behaviour is broadly similar. We watch the same telly (even Taggart), we work in similar places at similar jobs, we go to more or less the same shops and we buy more or less the same stuff. We use the same currency, we share the same banks, we lend and borrow the same way, we speak the same language, we wear the same clothes, we do the same thing at the evenings and at weekends (ie.we go to the pub).

Ethnically, the differences are extremely small. Many Scots identify as “Celts” but the most recent DNA studies show the majority of people from Britain and Ireland (and much of Europe) share a genetic make-up going back at least until the Mesolithic era. Many of our cultural markers are borrowed too: St George was Palestinian, haggis is from Lancashire and cricket is Flemish. On the other hand, Chicken Tikka Masala is from Glasgow and Paisley cloth is a Zoroastrian symbol made on Scottish looms and sold back to the Raj. Irn-Bru is made in Cumbernauld (Lanarkshire) and Mansfield (Notts).

In terms of technology, we have access to the same products supplied by the same providers, and although Scottish broadband penetration is slightly lower than the UK as a whole (70 per cent compared to 75 per cent), and the same with smartphone ownership (45 per cent to 51 per cent) the Scots are more likely to access the web with their phones (50 per cent to 39 per cent)

The truth is England vs Scotland is a localised minor cultural rivalry rather than a distinct ethnographic battle. It’s a minor dust up between mardy brothers – “Leave it, it’s in the family!”

Digital behaviour is really only interesting in the context of how outsiders like to pick at the stereotypes of the two countries and accentuate the differences. When pitted in rival camps (England vs Scotland at football, or Yes vs No) differences emerge that aren’t there in regular life. The rest of the world has caught on to the independence debate at a late hour and with bemusement.

The real catalyst for digital interest south of the border in the referendum was the potentially explosive news of the “Yes” campaign taking a poll lead on 6 September. According to Google Trends, the 30 day view of search behaviour around the term “Scottish Independence” was dominated by Scottish cities:

But in the last week south of the border there was a surge in interest, with both Manchester and London suddenly realising what is at stake, and those cities leapfrogging Inverness and Dundee in terms of regional search share:

The Mayor of London acknowledged this surge to on Twitter, saying “we are waking up from a trance”:

The referendum debate and concurrent web comment has been conducted mainly in English. Linguistically, a significant development of the campaign is the reemergence of the distinct Scots dialect. “Aye” and “Naw” are Lowland Scots words with a Germanic origin. This is quite distinct from Scots Gaelic and is a sister language to English having evolved from Frisian. Burns was a Scots speaker and the language belies a shared heritage with the founding blocks of the English language but has its own linguistic identity. www.ayenawmibbe.org is a site dedicated to encourage young voters, and the vernacular has crept into the national consciousness during the campaign.

Social media around the referendum has seen some passionate exchanges between rival camps, but also some moments of humour. The spoof Facebook page for Scotland declares that Scotland and England are in a relationship, but “it’s complicated”.

So despite the fact that many observers are looking for the online equivalent of the Tartan Army sitting on the crossbar at Wembley in 1977, Anglo-Caledonian behaviour online is pretty much interchangeable. Cultural differences are relative to the way we view each as other as English and Scots, how we view our Britishness and our relative tolerance for national stereotypes.

One other thing: such was the intense rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne in Australia in the 19th century that the capital city ended up being awarded to Canberra. So in the event of a federal Britain, say, in the mid-2020s when we’re looking for a suitable location for a government building: watch out Aberystwyth.

Joe Doveton is director of conversion services at Oban Digital

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