Saturday, 17 May 2014

Scotland does not need independence to be a country

While debating with independence supporters I frequently come across confusion about words like “country” and “nation”. The confusion arises from the fact that words are frequently used in different senses. As always it is profitable to go to our most authoritative dictionary in order to seek clarity. An entry in the Oxford English dictionary for the word “country” is particularly useful:

“The territory or land of a nation; usually an independent state, or a region once independent and still distinct in race, language, institutions, or historical memories, as England, Scotland, and Ireland, in the United Kingdom, etc.
With political changes, what were originally distinct countries have become provinces or districts of one country, and vice versa; the modern tendency being to identify the term with the existing political condition.”

Scotland is a country, but in an unusual sense, because while most countries are independent nation states Scotland is part of an independent nation state, the UK.  The referendum on independence is about whether Scotland ought to become a nation state. You clearly cannot become what you already are.

When pointing out that Scotland is a country in an unusual sense am I in any sense being derogatory about Scotland? Not at all I’m simply pointing out that although we are fully and completely a country, we are not an independent country. It is not derogatory to point out something that independence supporters obviously recognise to be true.

The reason why Scotland is described as a country is because we once were an independent country and this fact has been retained in our collective memory and language. Certain other attributes that frequently go along with being an independent country were also retained, such as a distinct church, education system, football team and banknotes. Whereas some European countries became very centralised and attempted to abolish the distinctions between the formerly independent countries from which they were formed, we in the UK were fortunate to live in a country that was largely accepting of difference and happy to embrace it. Whereas governments in, for example, France did their best to make everyone French, following exactly the same laws and speaking exactly the same language, the UK was more liberal and more willing to allow historical distinctions to remain.  British governments did not set out to erase from the map and from memory the historical borders in the UK as happened in much of Europe. Thus the retention of the distinctions between the countries of this UK, far from this being a reason to leave Britain, is a reason to recognise the benefits of staying.



Scotland is accurately described as a country because we were once independent, but formerly independent countries are not hard to find in Europe and thus have an equal claim to seeking independence as Scotland does. The kingdoms of Bavaria and Sicily were independent nation states long after Scotland ceased to be independent and could equally accurately be described as countries or nations if that is how the people living there chose to use their language.  Moreover Scotland too was once made up of independent countries. The Kingdom of Strathclyde (450 AD-1093 AD) stretched across the present border into Cumbria. The Kingdom of Dál Riata (circa 500 AD-839 AD) stretched across the sea into present day Northern Ireland. The Kingdom of Northumbria (653 AD-954 AD) likewise stretched across a present day border all the way from Edinburgh to York. Each of these formerly independent countries has as great a claim to independence as does Scotland (843 AD-1707). It is entirely arbitrary to pick one historical boundary rather than another.
Too many nationalists glide from the idea that Scotland is a country to the statement that we ought to be an independent country. But this clearly does not follow. If it did, then anywhere that once was independent ought to be so again, which would mean that we should not be seeking independence for Scotland, but for those former countries that once made up Scotland. It is purely an accident of history and linguistics that we don’t generally describe Strathclyde as a country. You cannot base a claim to independence on something so flimsy; otherwise I might as well justify the independence of Fife on the grounds that it is called a Kingdom.

Through the progression of history the United Kingdom has become a nation state. People who are from that nation state are called British. The borders of the UK came about through a process of unification, but so did the borders of Scotland, so did the borders of nearly every European country that is not tiny. There is as much justification to oppose the process by which the UK came together as to oppose the process by which Scotland came together. It was the same process and is common to most of Europe. Scotland united with England because we shared the same island and came to share the same language. This process didn’t happen overnight in 1707, but rather began with the process by which Angles, Saxons, Vikings, Normans and Romans gradually changed the whole of Ancient Britain from being a Celtic speaking land to being an English speaking nation. To regret that process, is to regret the very language with which we speak and the people who we are.

There is a Kantian principle in ethics that I rather like:
“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.”

If Scotland should be independent because we once were, then this must be applied universally. But this would mean that everywhere in Europe that once was independent should be so again. The point of Kant’s law is that people should ask themselves “What if everyone did this?” If the answer would be undesirable generally, then I ought not to act that way myself. But does anyone seriously think it would be beneficial for Europe to return to a collection of tiny states? Historical progress has come about through unification not through separation. If that were not so, we would remain warring tribes in the Dark ages. The EU is attempting to take that progress further by gradually unifying Europe still more closely. There are great challenges ahead to create a fully democratic EU, but we are not going to get anywhere if we go against the tide of history. 

3 comments:

  1. The Act of Union (1707) should be seen within the greater context of the age in which it came about. The C18th witnessed a process in which smaller states merged with their larger neighbours, often (like in the case of Catalonia) violently. Indeed, the thing which makes the merging of Scotland and England peculiar is that the Act of Union was passed by a sovereign Scottish parliament. As such Scots can be seen as much the instigators of the Union as the English parliamentarians. Despite some Nationalist claims, the Act of Union is not some historic injustice, but actually a benign manifestation of a more general trend toward large nation states within contemporary European politics.

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    1. It should be noted that the 18thC/19thC trend towards larger nation states (UK, Germany, Italy, Russia) you correctly observe has subsequently gone into reverse. There were only 51 members of the United Nations when it was formed in 1945; now there are 193.

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  2. It strikes me as a rather worrying trend. In the the last 30 years in Europe independence movements have frequently been associated with border disputes and warfare. The trouble with nationalism is that it sets off other nationalisms. Thus Ukrainian nationalism has fed nationalisms in Crimea, Donetsk, Lugansk etc. It's unclear where this process ends. Likewise Yugoslavia kept splitting until now there are eight independent states and de facto nine if you count the effective partition in Bosnia. No one would suggest that either Yugoslavia or the USSR were ideal societies, but neither is this sort of fragmentation.

    What worries me most is that Scottish nationalism will set off English, Irish and Welsh nationalisms. Peace would, no doubt, be maintained, but there could be unpleasant rivalries, anger and lack of harmony among neighbours. I think life could be rather unpleasant for many people on both sides of the newly formed international border if divorce negotiations went badly.

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