Saturday 26 July 2014

Nationalist arguments depend on a strange misunderstanding of the word “country”

I keep coming across independence supporters with the rather strange idea that the UK, commonly also called Britain, is not a country. They think that the UK is composed of four countries, but that the UK is not itself a country.

I think the reason for this odd viewpoint is partly that Scottish nationalists dislike the UK. They certainly don’t wish to be a part of it. If the UK were really not a country, it would make more sense to break it up and there would be less justification for maintaining it.

It’s true that not every union of countries is itself a country. The United Nations is not a country, nor at least for the moment is the European Union. But in what way does the United Nations differ from the United Kingdom? The main way is that, almost without exception, the United Nations is made up of independent sovereign nation states. If that were the case with the United Kingdom there would be no need for us to be having a referendum on independence. Although Scotland is a nation, we are not at present a nation state. Anyone who doubts this should check the dictionary. According to the OED a nation state is:

An independent political state formed from a people who share a common national identity (historically, culturally, or ethnically); (more generally) any independent political state.

Scotland would become a nation state if and when we became independent. But you clearly can’t become what you already are.

If Scotland is not a nation state, then obviously neither is England, nor Wales, nor Northern Ireland. So the question arises do we live in a nation state at all? Is the United Kingdom one of those unusual exceptions that are members of the United Nations, but which are not independent sovereign nation states? Have we been living all our lives as stateless individuals without realising it? If Scotland became independent would the poor people left living in the United Kingdom not even be living in a nation state? This is absurd. Clearly and self-evidently the UK is a nation state.

The United Kingdom is a rather unusual nation state in that it has parts which are usually described as nations or countries. Thus it is necessary to make use of the distinction between “nation state” and “nation” in describing for examples England’s relationship to the UK. England is a nation which is part of a nation state. In other nation states there are a wide variety of conventions and words to describe the parts of the nation state. Usage varies, but where there is no danger of ambiguity it is common to describe nation states simply as nations.  Thus we have the OED definition of nation:

A people or group of peoples; a political state.

A large aggregate of communities and individuals united by factors such as common descent, language, culture, history, or occupation of the same territory, so as to form a distinct people. Now also: such a people forming a political state; a political state. (In early use also in pl.: a country.)

The United Kingdom is a nation just as Germany is a nation, France is a nation and Italy is a nation. Each of these nations is formed from places that were once independent nation states (England, Saxony, Burgundy and Sicily). How English, Saxon, Burgundian and Sicilian people describe where they live, may be affected by whether or not they wish to regain that independence, or it may simply reflect the linguistic usage of the language they speak, but the reality is the same. England is to the UK as Saxony is to Germany.

The UK clearly fits the definition of a nation. But notice the little part in brackets at the end of the definition. What this means is that nations are usually also described as countries. The OED definition of country is as follows:

The land of a person's birth, citizenship, residence, etc.; one's homeland.

Well I am at present a citizen of the United Kingdom. I’m not a citizen of Scotland and could not become one until and unless Scotland became an independent sovereign nation state. But it’s clearly correct to say that Scotland is a country. This is how we typically use the word in English. It is incorrect to describe Scotland as a region. We use that word to describe places like Grampian or Tayside. The OED recognises that we use the word country in different senses. Thus it also defines country as:

The territory of a nation; a region constituting an independent state, or a region, province, etc., which was once independent and is still distinct in institutions, language, etc.

The word country is normally used to describe independent nation states. But can also be used to describe parts of such states.

It is clearly absurd and a simple misunderstanding of ordinary words to suppose that the United Kingdom is not a country. Moreover it does not follow from the fact that Scotland is a nation and a country that we should become an independent nation and country. That argument is obviously circular and depends on the conflation of the different senses of the words “country” and “nation.”

The fact that Scotland once was independent does not imply that we ought once more to be independent. Scotland’s situation as part of the UK is not historically unusual, but rather is the norm. Nearly every European country including Scotland is made up of places that once were independent. If everywhere in Europe that once was independent became so again there would be literally hundreds of tiny countries including five or six within the present boundaries of Scotland.

There may or may not be a good reason to create an international border between England and Scotland, but it ought not to be because of a muddled understanding of ordinary words and a peculiar sense of Scottish exceptionalism in the context of the development of the modern nation state in Europe.