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. 

Saturday, 19 July 2014

A summary with two months to go

We’re approaching the end of the longest political campaign any of us can remember. I suspect the result is already determined and that it would make no difference if the referendum were next week or in two months. However, there are some Scots who have yet to make up their minds and there is a lot of confusion because the claims of both sides are so contradictory. Here’s what I think of the main issues.


I follow polls and I’m pleased when my side appears to do well and less pleased when my side appears to do less well. However, I try my best not to be too bothered by them either way. Anyway it’s best to campaign as if you were behind and never to say “we’re way ahead”, “it’s over” and “we’re going to win easily.” Complacency is the biggest danger to No, continuing to fight hard is the best chance for Yes.

There’s a systematic error in the polling. Someone is wrong. The No lead can’t be both small (Survation) and large (Yougov).  There’s not much point debating something, which the facts will determine on September 19th. But it’s best to campaign as if the lead were small and try to make it larger.


Scotland will remain a relatively wealthy Western European economy whatever the result of the referendum. Wealth comes from the activities of people and more or less the same people will probably be here next year. Independence would neither be an economic disaster nor would the streets be made of gold. An independent Scotland’s extra share of oil revenue would be more or less cancelled out by the loss of economies of scale and UK government funding (Barnett formula). Whether independent or not, how Scotland fairs economically in the future depends on the sorts of choices politicians make. The best choice politicians can make is to interfere as little as possible in the market. I don’t believe however, that this is the route that an independent Scotland would take at least initially and for this reason economically independence might be damaging at least in the short term.


International relations are frequently carried out ambiguously. Diplomacy is often a matter of trying to please both sides. It’s considered poor form to interfere too much in a country’s internal affairs. However, when someone like Jean-Claude Juncker says that he’s not planning to expand the EU beyond 28 countries, of course, he’s also talking about Scotland. His office might deny that he is, because it would be interfering, but these sorts of remarks are calculated. The EU does not want secession to take off in Western Europe like it has in Eastern Europe. Changing international boundaries is historically   problematic and can lead to unforeseen, unintended consequences. It is the opposite direction to the one Mr Juncker wants Europe to go.

What matters anyway is not whether Scotland is in the EU, but that we have the same EU status as the UK. If they voted to leave (I think they won’t in the end), we would have to go with them whether independent or not. Scotland is too integrated into the UK economy to be able to be in the EU while the UK is not.


The lesson of the Eurozone is that currency union without political and fiscal union does not work. When countries become independent, even tiny ones like Latvia, the norm is that they set up their own currencies. Using the pound without a currency union would send Scotland’s financial sector down south, along with the associated jobs and wealth and would mean that our savings lacked a lender of last resort. The best option for an independent Scotland would be to set up its own currency. This however would be damaging to Scotland’s trade and integration into the UK economy.  

Lots of Scots did not appreciate George Osborne & co. saying that we could not keep the pound after independence. Did they mean it? There’s no way of knowing until and unless negotiations begin after a vote for independence. You take your pick according to what you want to believe and which side of the debate you support. These matters however, in the end are determined by self-interest and public opinion. Anyone who thinks the other parts of the UK are going to vote for a Eurozone style currency union with Scotland after rejecting it with the EU, does not understand their fellow citizens.


With a short time to go it is more and more important that when campaigning we do nothing that harms the image of the side we support. Don’t hate or insult the sort of people you meet every day in shops, on the bus or at work. I find it best simply to ignore any insulting language online. We’re all very passionate about the issues and we’ve all said things that are unkind. That’s the nature of politics. But there are lots of good people on both sides and it’s possible to have reasonable, informed conversations with them. You often learn something too and make friends.


Independence is clearly possible. The issue is whether it is the best course of action for Scotland. Many independence supporters want independence as an ideal in itself. They want it come what may. The rest of us have to balance up the advantages and disadvantages of what we think would happen. There is much that is uncertain, especially with regard to the key issues of currency and the EU. How someone is liable to vote may be influenced by their attitude to risk. Scotland is a great place to live now. It’s a great place, at least in part, because we’ve been in the UK for the last 300 years. No doubt Scotland would still be a great place to live after independence, but that Scotland is another country where I have never lived a new nation state with an international relationship with places I have always thought of as part of my home.  

Sunday, 13 July 2014

A parable about wind

There was once a house shared by four old friends, Shona, Elizabeth, Wyn and Niamh. They had lived together for a long time. They all spoke the same language, with slightly different accents, and had broadly similar attitudes and cultures. Over time some friction developed in this house, primarily over bills, how to share out money and how to run the house. Shona decided to leave. But did Shona now want to live on her own? On the contrary, she now wanted to live in a large dormitory, containing not only her former housemates, but also people with very different languages and cultures. The residents of the dormitory wondered whether they really wanted such a fractious new dormitory member. If Shona could not bear to live in the same house as her English speaking former housemates, would she not be a source of trouble and disharmony in the dormitory? If English speakers could not bear to live together what example would that set to the Spanish speakers or the German speakers? The members of the dormitory got together to decide if they should let Shona come and live there. They elected a Luxembourger whose name sounded like rubbish but whose advice was anything but. He looked in an old book and found a proverb saying sorry Shona “She who troubleth her own house shall inherit the wind.”