BY EFFIE DEANS
I remember discussions in 2014 about whether Scottish independence would create a border between Scotland and the rest of Britain. Scottish nationalists insisted vehemently that there would be no border and that we wouldn’t notice crossing from Scotland into England just as an Austrian doesn’t notice crossing into Germany. Six years later and we discover what we knew all along. The SNP is obsessed about borders and desperate to close them.
Is there a border between England and Scotland? There is indeed a place called England and a place called Scotland and there is a line that marks the boundary between the one and the other. This line can be called a border. But so too can the line between my house and the house of my neighbour. Some neighbours get into disputes about hedges and even go to court to decide the exact border of their properties and whether a branch legitimately hangs over the border of not. We have conventions about not entering someone else’s property and crossing over their border. We don’t just walk across someone else’s garden without permission. But it would be absurd for me to say that I have closed the border to my house.
There are different senses to the word border and there is a lot of unclear thinking about the relationship between the various parts of Britain. But let’s be clear about one thing. There are no international borders in Britain.
The lack of clarity is fuelled by various politicians and newspaper commentators who continually describe Britain as being made up of four nations. It is this that gives rise to the sense that there must be borders between them.
The Kingdom of Great Britain was formed in 1707, but arguably existed from the union of the crowns in 1603. James I and VI after all asked in 1604
Hath He not made us all in one island compassed with one sea and of itself by nature indivisible?
He then created the first version of the Union Flag in 1606. Great Britain is by nature, by people, language and culture one country. Our boundary is natural, the sea, not arbitrary. It is for this reason unchanging.
The people in present day Scotland and England prior to the Roman conquest spoke the same language. We were therefore one people who have subsequently benefitted from waves of migration that eventually turned our common Celtic language into a common English language. People in Scotland did not start speaking English in 1707 nor in 1603. The Angles, Saxons, Vikings and Normans also settled in Scotland. The form of English spoken in Scotland derives from the version of Old English spoken in Northumberland. It is for this reason that it has so many similarities with Geordie.
The United Kingdom was not created in 1707, but rather in 1800 when the Kingdom of Ireland joined with the Kingdom of Great Britain.
Some Scottish nationalists and journalists ignorant of the history suppose that the United Kingdom means that there are four nations united in a Union rather like the EU. But this is mistaken. The United Kingdom today does not refer to the unity of Scotland with England, but rather to the unity of Northern Ireland with Great Britain.
The historical use of the terms “Union” and “Unionist” do not refer to Scotland and England. In the nineteenth century the unity of Great Britain was as uncontentious as the unity of France. Unionist meant someone who opposed nationalism in Ireland. There was no nationalism to oppose in Scotland, which is a modern phenomenon. The SNP came into existence in 1934 in the wake of a new form of continental politics.
To use the term unionist in modern day Scotland is anachronistic and arguably sectarian because it is describing the division in Northern Ireland and Glasgow rather than here.
While we have continued to use the words Scotland and England in the same way that we use historical counties and regions that no longer exist, we do not suppose that there is a real border between them. I may think of myself as from Mercia or Wessex, but I would be laughed at if I seriously supposed that these places existed.
Great Britain is a unitary sovereign nation state. Devolution did not change this, but it did lead to an ambiguity that nationalists could exploit. The Scottish Government has jurisdiction over Scotland, but so too does the Mayor of London have jurisdiction over London. Various forms of local government may determine at what time the bins are collected in my village. The border of their jurisdiction ends at a certain point and another local government takes over. Woe betide anyone who stretches the collecting of bins from Scotland to Newcastle. But it would be absurd to suppose that because these governments control an important part of health (sanitation) that there is a real border between them.
Devolution has unfairly given Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland control over extensive areas of life, while England is left merely with the British Government. This has led to confusion. No one knows what we are allowed to do where during the Covid crisis. It has also led to mission creep.
Britain is not a federation, nor is it a confederation. There are no international boundaries and it is quite absurd to suppose that a devolved power can use control of health to impose quarantine over travellers either from within Britain or from abroad. This was not the intention of devolution.
Nicola Sturgeon has an ultra timid strategy of opening Scotland up from lockdown. It may be that she is trying to eliminate Covid from Scotland. But the only way for this strategy to work in the long run would be if we quarantined all arrivals into Scotland like New Zealand did. She could then claim to be Jacinda MacArdern and separate Scotland from the rest of Britain.
The problem with Sturgeon’s strategy of course is that while New Zealand is a sovereign nation state, Scotland isn’t.
Sturgeon is attempting to leverage her powers over health to turn Scotland into what it was prior to 1603, but there is a disconnect between the powers that she has and the powers that she needs.
Sturgeon may in theory be able to quarantine visitors from England and visitors from flights and ferries, but Scottish tourism still needs to be bailed out from somewhere and the money isn’t going to come from Scotland, because we make a loss and couldn’t borrow from financial markets at an acceptable rate.
If tomorrow Britain decided to declare unilateral independence from Scotland, if it erected a barbwire fence at the border and refused to allow all forms of transportation to cross that border. If it immediately and unilaterally stopped all payments from the British Treasury to Scotland and withdrew everything that belonged to the British state, then Scotland would indeed find itself going back in time to 1603 very quickly. We would eat what could be grown here and we would light our houses with candles made from tallow.
Something quite odd is going on within the SNP. Of course, this being Scotland no one from outside knows anything about it. It can best be described in a crude way as unilateralist urinating contest.
The goddess then: ‘Who best can send on high
The salient spout, far-streaming to the sky;
Is that goddess a Sturgeon or a Cherry?
The excellent Effie Deans writes at Lily of St. Leonard’s here.