Saturday 29 August 2020

Scottish nationalism is based on historical ignorance


Scottish nationalists frequently talk about the countries that have become independent and that they never regret it. They list various new nation states in Europe and places that were formerly part of empires. But what they never mention is the number of places that were formerly countries and now are not. They usually don’t regret their unity either.

If you look at a map of Europe in 1815 you see both forces at work. Secession movements caused the Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman Empires to split into countries like Greece, Romania and Slovakia. These splits were usually because of linguistic, religious cultural or geographical differences. But where people live geographically contiguously and where they speak the same or similar languages and have similar religious and cultural practices the tendency is for people to unite.

It is for this reason that both Italy and Germany united in the 19th century. I have lost count of the formerly independent countries that used to be in Germany. Italy too was made up of places with quaint names such as the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Where was the second Sicily? I can’t seem to find it.

Countries like France and Spain too were once made up of formerly independent countries or kingdoms. Being a formerly independent country is not unusual. Both Vermont and Texas were independent before they joined the United States and arguably each of the original thirteen colonies was independent prior to forming “one nation indivisible”.

Scottish nationalists have an idea that there is something exceptional about Scotland. But there isn’t. The number of formerly independent countries that have ceased to be independent since 1707 is enormous. The vast majority of them form countries that don’t have serious secession movements and are quite happy being part of a greater whole.

While there has always been in human beings a tendency to secede, often for very good reasons, there has also been a tendency to unite. If people who are similar had not had the tendency to unite, we would never have developed countries in the first place, nor indeed would we have ever had a place called Scotland.

The process by which both Germany and Italy united was by means of war. Saxony became part of Germany essentially because of the Austro-Prussian War (1866) where it fought against Prussia, and the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) which united Germany into an Empire. The Saxons were not given much choice.

Is Saxony any less of a country than Scotland? It has an equally long history. The fact that most Scots are unaware of this history does not change it. Most Saxons are unaware of Scottish history.

Saxons seem to be quite happy to be part of modern Germany. They were part of an independent East Germany until 1990, but they were quite happy to reunify with their Western fellow citizens.

Why does no one demand the reestablishment of Saxony as an independent country, nor indeed East Germany? If places that were independent as recently as 1990 are happy to be united why on earth do some Scots demand the reestablishment of an international border that disappeared in 1707?

When there are elections in Germany the different parts, some of which are formerly independent countries, vote for different political parties. No one complains if Saxony votes for a left-wing party but Germany on the whole elects a right-wing Government. If the whole of Germany voted to leave the EU, no one would say that Saxony was dragged out against its will if Saxony voted to stay. No one would even say that East Germany was dragged out against its will under those circumstances. Having decided to be united Germans, no matter which formerly independent country they come from, have to accept the will of the majority.

What is the difference between Germany and Britain?  What indeed is the difference between Britain and every other nation state in Europe? The difference is simply this. People from Germany, Italy or France think of themselves as primarily German, Italian or French. They do this because they were forced to think this way. Their education systems emphasised the unity of the nation state and the subordinate status of the parts that were formerly independent.

In Britain the sense of being British is subordinate to the sense of being Scottish. Britain never tried to annul the idea that Scotland was a country as the Germans annulled the sense that Saxony was a country.

It is for this reason that Scotland kept a slightly different legal system, which anyway is far from being as exceptional as Scottish nationalists claim it to be. After all different laws apply in Michigan and Indiana.

If like the French we had spent centuries annulling regional difference, we would have no problem with secession now. There is only one language in France, one education system and one identity. But this didn’t happen accidentally. It happened by design. The British by contrast were so confident in ourselves and so liberal that we didn’t see the need to assert that there was only Britain and that the parts were mere regions. Unlike anyone else in Europe we celebrated that we were made up of four nations and then wondered why we had a problem with nationalism.

Scotland is no different from any other formerly independent country in Europe. We have no more legitimate grievance than Saxons. We have rather less in fact because we were not conquered but rather took over the English crown. Our sense of being a separate country with a separate identity alone fuels our nationalism and desire for separation. But there are no good grounds for separating people who speak the same language and share the same small island. The only difference between the British people is an accent and a tendency to vote for different political parties. If that is the grounds for divorce then no country, including Scotland, could long endure.