Saturday 6 October 2012

The argument for independence depends on a linguistic anomaly

The historical process which led to Scotland being part of the United Kingdom is not unusual in a European context, nearly all European countries are made up of formerly independent states. What is unusual is that while the constituent parts of, for example, Germany or Italy are not normally described in English as countries, the parts which make up the UK nearly always are described as countries.
There are, of course, many linguistic anomalies in English, but this one is worth investigating in the present context of a referendum on Scottish independence, as Scotland being a country forms one of the fundamental justifications for the nationalist argument for independence. Commonly nationalists complain that unionists would have it that Scotland is the only country in the world incapable of being independent. They argue that being a country, it is only right and proper that Scotland should take its place in the world of nation states. But what if the description of Scotland being a country is really a linguistic anomaly? Would that not be to base the case for independence on something as tenuous as an irregular feature of English usage?
Of course it would still be possible to argue for independence even if Scotland were not described as a country. An area does not at present have to be a country in order to want independence, as the example of Quebec shows. Quebec is a province of Canada, many of the people living there however, want it to become an independent country and form a new nation state. It would likewise be possible for a federated state to seek independence. An example of such a state might be South Carolina, or New South Wales or Bavaria. But none of these places are described as countries. If they were to want independence, they would be wanting to become a country.
Being a country normally implies that a place is already independent. Why is it that Scotland is already described as a country, when in reality that is what nationalists wish it to become? Is there something in Scotland’s history, which sets it apart from the European historical context, where so many countries are formed from formerly independent states?
If you go back far enough, nearly all European countries of any size were made up of formerly independent states. Most of what we now call regions in a European context were formerly states. Britanny, for example, was an independent state until 1547, while the Kingdom of Navarre was independent until 1620. English speaking people do not now describe Navarre or Britanny as countries. It would be strange if asked, which countries did you visit on your holiday to answer Britanny and Navarre. Rather it  would be correct to answer France and Spain.
Perhaps Scotland has a special status as a country because it was independent until relatively recently. The date when the UK really began is normally taken to be 1707. In historical terms this is relatively recent, but it is easy to find present day regions in Europe which were independent states long after this. Germany was formally made up of literally hundreds of independent states. Bavaria was a fully independent state until 1871 and in some ways retained a large degree of sovereign independence, such as a separate diplomatic service and military, until 1918. Italy likewise was made up of independent states until unification in the 1860s. Thus the Kingdom of Sardinia remained independent until 1861, while the Kingdom of the two Sicilies remained independent until 1860.
Scotland has been a part of the UK far longer than  the constituent parts of Italy or Germany, but if someone asked me which countries I visited in Europe, it would be considered a simple mistake if I answered Bavaria, Saxony, Sicily and Sardinia. These places simply are no longer countries, even though formerly they once were.
What makes Scotland so special? Why is Scotland still considered to be a country when Bavaria is not? There is no really rational explanation, but it is this difference in how these places are named that explains why nationalism has a strong minority following in Scotland, while it is almost non existent in Bavaria.
Imagine if each formerly independent state in Europe were described in the way that Scotland is described. Scotland is described as being a country, sometimes even a nation. Moreover, it has a Parliament and a Government, it has a flag, which many Scots prefer to the Union flag, it has its own banknotes. What’s in a name? Quite a lot actually. Imagine if Sardinia called itself a country,  refused to fly the Italian flag, issued its own banknotes, called its regional council the Parliament of Sardinia, which formed the Government of Sardinia and continually complained about the wicked Roman government. Would this aid Italian unity or harm it?
Some Scots say that they only feel Scottish. But this is really the equivalent of a Bavian denying that he is a German, of a Sicilian denying that he is an Italian. If I seriously suggested such a thing, it would imply that I simply did not understand the words “German” and “Italian”. Yet highly educated Scots routinely give the impression that they do not understand the word “British”.
Linguistic anomalies exist for the most accidental of reasons. Formerly, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries,  there was a move towards using the term North Britain instead of Scotland and Scottish nationalism or the desire for independence was, practically speaking, non-existent. Now the term North Britain is considered hopelessly archaic. What changed this? The answer perversely enough, I believe, is football.
Owing to the UK being at the forefront in the development of football, each part of the UK remains in the anomalous position of having its own international  team. There is absolutely no rational justification for this irregularity continuing, but it does and continues to feed nationalistic feelings. As we have seen with the Olympics, when the UK competes as a single team the tendency is for everyone in Scotland to cheer on members of the British team, no matter where they are from. The Olympic team thus acts as a unifying force and for this reason is damaging to the aspirations of Scottish nationalists. By the same token the existence of separate football teams is a dividing force, which aids the nationalists. Imagine if Bavaria had its own football team. Would this make it more or less likely that Bavaria would desire independence? The answer is obvious.
There are two main sides to the debate about independence. The economic/political side and the identity side. The latter is the more powerful. But it is my contention that this identity side of the argument depends on a linguistic anomaly, which describes Scotland as a country, underpinned by Scotland continuing to compete internationally as if it really were a country. Do we really wish to make the the most important decision of our lives, in the forthcoming referendum, on the basis of an anomaly?