Saturday 8 March 2014

Independence and the meaning of the word "foreign"

It’s easy to jeer at Mr Salmond’s “Dark Star” speech, but it should be seen as part of the SNP’s long term and very clever strategy of achieving Scottish independence even though only around a third of the Scottish population are consistently committed to the idea of Scotland being an independent nation state. I suspect someone thought about this rather hard some years ago and then disseminated the strategy to SNP supporters with guidance on how to implement it. I’ve met the same sort of arguments endlessly in conversation and online, for which reason its hard to believe that it is simply a matter of chance. The nationalist’s task is to persuade Scots, who in many if not most respects like living in the UK, to vote for independence. Well what if you could persuade them that they could both live in an independent Scotland and remain part of the UK? That would seem to be an impossibility, but if you emphasise how lite independence would be. If you emphasise how so much of what Scots like about the UK would continue. If finally you say that Scots would still be British and the English would not be foreign, even that the UK would continue as the union of the crowns. Well what’s stopping even the most ardent unionist voting for that? Someone should set up a Rangers for indy group complete with a banner depicting Ulster’s red hand, the SNP thistle and the Union Jack.

The cleverness of the SNP strategy is that it depends on the ambiguity of words. It’s precisely for this reason that it can be difficult to argue against. For in one sense what they say is correct. The thing is that we use words like “country”, “nation” and “foreign” in a variety of senses. Mr Salmond said in his speech:

Scotland will not be a foreign country after independence, any more than Ireland, Northern Ireland, England or Wales could ever be foreign countries to Scotland.

Now in one sense this seems sensible enough. Scotland already is a country and a nation, but we don’t think of England, Wales or Northern Ireland as foreign countries. What about the Republic of Ireland? Mr Salmond has cleverly and subtly lumped the Republic in with the other parts of the UK. But of course the Republic is no longer part of the UK. It is independent. Do we think of Dublin as a city in a foreign country? Well at times Mr Salmond is correct. I remember when Ireland were in the World Cup people in all parts of the UK cheered them on as if they were one of us. Irish people can even vote in UK elections and don’t even need to show their passports at the border. There is a special relationship between the UK and the Republic whereby the UK treats everyone in Ireland as if they were still a citizen of Britain, while the Republic treats everyone in Northern Ireland as if they were a citizen of the Republic. A similar if not even closer relationship obtains between the UK and people from the Isle of Man and the Channel Isles. These places are self-governing and have a kind of independence, but the people living there are not foreign. They are British citizens in much the same way as the rest of us.

The fact is that for the most part we tend to only use the word “foreign” for people who speak a different language from us. The Oxford English Dictionary gives the following definition of foreigner:

A person born in a foreign country; one from abroad or of another nation; an alien.
In ordinary use chiefly applied to those who speak a foreign language as their native tongue; thus in England the term is not commonly understood to include Americans.

So in one sense Mr Salmond is right. If even Americans are not foreigners how could the English be described so. The same is true no doubt in other languages, each with its own ambiguities. In Russian the word for foreigner tends not to be used for people who speak Russian even if they they now live in places which are no longer part of Russia. Thus someone from Kazakhstan, whose origin is Russian, would not normally be described as a Kazakh, but as a Russian. But the most important point is that Kazakhstan, having become independent when the Soviet Union broke up, is a foreign power. This makes rather a big difference as we have been learning in the past week. In 1954 Khrushchev gave Crimea to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Imagine if in 1975 Brezhnev had decided to give it back. Would it have caused any fuss in the West? I doubt if it would even have made the papers. Why should Crimea be causing such a fuss today? Because Ukraine is now a foreign power. Ukraine is a different nation state to Russia and even if Russians do not think of Russians living in Crimea as foreigners, Crimea is part of a foreign land. If that were not so, then there could be no question of invasion or of seizing someone else’s land.

We may use the words “foreign” and “foreigner” in a loose way, but the underlying reality is clear. At present we all live in a nation state called the UK. Nation states are called countries. But parts of nation states are sometimes called countries too. Thus the OED defines country as:

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.

So Scotland is a country and also part of a country, the UK. Scotland however, while being a nation is not a nation state. What independence supporters want is that Scotland should become an independent nation state. You clearly can not become what you already are. But independence supporters frequently beg the question: 

Should Scotland be an independent country? Well, yes, of course it should. All countries, surely, should be independent. Otherwise they're provinces, not countries.

This argument depends on the conflation of the two meanings of country. It’s like arguing all independent states should be independent states. But this is frequently what nationalists do. They take the fact that Scotland is a country because it once was independent to justify that it ought to be independent. But this is to use one sense of the word “country” to justify the other, which it could only do by conflating the meanings, a clear instance of a circular argument. Moreover this sort of argument could equally well be used for any place that once was independent, e.g. Bavaria, Lombardy Mercia or even Aberdeenshire.

Through the ambiguity of words the SNP are deliberately attempting to make what should be clear hazy. The United Kingdom is a nation state; people from that nation state are called British rather than United Kingdomers. If asked my citizenship the only correct answer is British. If Scotland becomes independent Scottish people, unless they maintained dual nationality, would cease to be British in the sense of nationality. There is another sense in which Scottish citizens could maintain that they would be British. That is the sense in which they are from the island of Great Britain. But this is not the sense of citizenship. When someone from Northern Ireland says he’s British, he clearly does not mean that he is from the island of Great Britain he’s talking about his citizenship. People from the Republic on the other hand refuse to use the geographical term British Isles and it is therefore highly unlikely that Scots post independence would describe themselves as British. This is just their attempt to cloud the issue. How many nationalists do you know who think of themselves as British? A similar attempt at causing confusing is sometimes made with regard to the union of the crowns. Even if the Queen still was still queen of Scotland and there was in some sense a continuing “United Kingdom” Scotland would not be part of the nation state called the United Kingdom.

What this means can be illustrated by an example. Imagine if at the conclusion of the First World War, Lloyd George had decided to give Berwick back to Scotland as a reward for Scotland’s contribution and in recognition of the wrongness of it being seized in the 1482. No one in the rest of the world would have taken much notice of this as nation states can rearrange their boundaries as they please. But if Scotland were an independent nation state and chose to seize Berwick, this would cause an international incident even if the majority of the citizens of Berwick felt Scottish and wanted to return. The reason for this is that Scotland would be a foreign power and relations between Scotland and the UK would be international relations. If Scotland were not a foreign power, there would be nothing to prevent the UK from holding a plebiscite in Orkney and Shetland giving them the chance to to choose to leave Scotland and join the UK.

Whether or not we describe someone as foreign depends on the fact that the word “foreign” is ambiguous and can be used in a variety of ways. But this should not be used as a means of obfuscating basic facts. The goal of independence is to create a new sovereign nation state. It is the gaining of sovereignty that would make us all live in a foreign power. Our relations with the other parts of what is now the UK would cease to be internal and would become external or international. Whether we thought of our former compatriots as foreign or not would probably depend on how we got on with them. My guess is that most Ukrainians now think of Russians as foreigners. But how people use the word “foreign” is frankly beside the point.  A nation state has a special obligation to its own citizens and generally acts in the interests of those citizens. A nation state has no particular obligations to the citizens of another nation state unless by virtue of an international agreement. Thus even if I don’t call my American cousin a foreigner I have no right to live or work there and the relationship between our states is an international relationship governed by the Foreign Office. That is the reality no matter how we try to play with words. Independence would make us a foreign land.