BY EFFIE DEANS
The fundamental misunderstanding that forms the basis of Scottish nationalism has been undermined by a statement from the European Commission. When the UK finally left the EU, the Government decided not to continue to take part in the Erasmus Program, but instead to replace it with the Turing Scheme. The SNP objected and asked the European Commission whether Scotland could join the Erasmus Program. A Commission spokesperson has replied:
Only time will tell if the Turing Scheme turns out to be better, worse or the same for British students as the Erasmus Program. But the important point is that the European Commission has fatally undermined the SNP argument.
In the international sphere there is only the United Kingdom. This is why the UK is a member of the United Nations, sits on the Security Council and has diplomatic relations with other countries. The UK could join the Erasmus Program just as it could join the EU because it is a country. Scotland can do none of these things because it is not a country.
Almost uniquely in Europe there is a secessionist movement in Scotland with apparently a serious prospect of success. Why is this? The reason is that uniquely in Europe the United Kingdom is thought of by most British people as a country made up of countries. But what does it mean to be a country within a country?
The problem with the idea is that it conflates two meanings of the word “country”. The first meaning of the word “country” is associated with independent sovereign nation states. These are places that can join or leave the EU or decide that the Erasmus Program is not for them. The second use of the word “country” applying to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England is quite different. These places have devolved parliaments and oddly take part in international sport, but they are not independent sovereign nation states. Scotland cannot logically seek independence if it is already independent.
France does not have a serious problem with secession, because people in France do think that the formerly independent kingdoms which joined together to form modern France are countries. Nowhere in Europe, with the possible exception of Spain, are people taught from the cradle that they live in a country within a country or that their country is made up of nations.
Each of the nations in Europe has a self-confidence in its own existence that is lacking in the UK. Any attempt by a foreign power to annex a part of France and any attempt by a part of France to secede would be resisted by the whole French people together with French armed forces. But in the UK many English people respond to the prospect of Scottish secession by saying something like good riddance or by a shrug of the shoulders as if this had nothing to do with them.
While Indian and Chinese troops once more engage in unarmed combat over a remote piece of Himalayan territory, British people uniquely are indifferent, helpless or even joyful as our country is threatened.
The only country in Europe whose borders are threatened is the UK, but most British people treat this with unconcern because our primary identity is with places that have no existence on the international stage. This is perverse and also idiosyncratic. No one else in Europe identifies primarily with the former kingdoms that formed their modern countries.
There is a strange view that somehow the United Kingdom is not quite real. The word “United” is unhelpful because it implies separation. From this comes the idea that the United Kingdom is some sort of continued union of separate states and that those states continue to exist just like they did before they were united. But this is a misunderstanding of the history.
When the Kingdom of Scotland joined the Kingdom of England both England and Scotland were annulled in exactly the same way as the kingdoms that formed Italy and Germany were annulled. There is no union of kingdoms in either Italy or Germany because the kingdoms ceased when they merged. For this reason, these former kingdoms cannot apply to join the Erasmus Program either.
The word United in United Kingdom does not refer to the joining of England with Scotland. Prior to joining with the Kingdom of Ireland, England and Scotland were not described as being united, they were just the Kingdom of Great Britain. This is no different from any other European kingdom that was formed from prior kingdoms.
If Northern Ireland had not remained British, the result of Irish secession would have been that we would have reverted to being the Kingdom of Great Britain. The idea therefore that Great Britain is merely a geographical term is to suppose that Italy merely describes a peninsular and Iceland an island.
But once we accept that Scotland and England are not in any way different from the former kingdoms that make up Italy, Germany and France and that they have no international existence, then it becomes possible to refute Scottish nationalism.
The Scottish nationalist argument depends on Scotland somehow still being a country, which is somehow trapped in a Union. But there is no Union. Scotland and England completed their merger more than three centuries ago. Because in international terms Scotland isn’t a country at all, it has no more right to independence than does Wessex, Burgundy, Aberdeenshire or any of the other places in Europe that might once have been independent.
The justification for Scottish independence depends on conflating the two senses of country in the phrase “a country within a country”. It depends on arguing that because Scotland is commonly called a country it is or ought to be a country like France i.e. an independent sovereign nation state. But that is to assume what you are trying to prove. A sovereign independent nation state cannot be within another sovereign independent nation state, because being within it would negate its sovereignty and independence. It follows that either the United Kingdom is not a country (in which case the EU, United Nations and everyone else is mistaken) or Scotland is not a country, but merely called one. But we cannot use the fact that Scotland is called a country to justify it being something that it is not, i.e. an independent country. That would be the equivalent of using the fact that the Black Isle is called an Isle to justify attempting to sail round it.
Once it is accepted that in international terms Scotland is not a country, which is the point the European Commission is making about Erasmus, then it becomes no more unfair that Scotland left the EU when the UK as a whole left than it would be unfair if an independent Scotland chose to join the EU, but Aberdeenshire voted to stay out and was forced to go with the majority. It would only be unfair if Scotland were an independent country, but we are not. But if Scotland is merely a part of the UK there can be no reasonable objection, because when we describe Scotland as a country we mean something similar to region or county, i.e. an administrative division that does not signify either sovereignty or independence.
But once we accept the sense in which Scotland is a country then the whole justification of giving that place a referendum on independence ceases. We would not give Wessex an independence referendum, nor Mercia even though in ancient times they were kingdoms. We would not give the former kingdoms that made up Scotland such a vote, nor indeed would we give the “Kingdom of Fife” a vote because it is called a Kingdom. It’s not the words that matter, but the what those words mean. Scotland may be called a country, but it is not a country in the sense that France is. But in that case Scotland has no more claim to independence than Burgundy.
If the parts of the UK cannot join Erasmus, this tells us something important about those parts. The British Government must cease treating the UK as a collection of nations and British people must cease thinking of themselves as primarily English, Scottish, Welsh, or Northern Irish. It is this that helps undermine our unity. Everyone including the European Commission treats us as one. We must do the same.
The excellent Effie Deans writes at Lily of St. Leonard’s here.