Why is the United Kingdom still a united kingdom?
May 14, 2007 11:46 AM   Subscribe

Why is the United Kingdom still a united kingdom?

I was reading The Economist two weeks ago and they had an article about Scotland and how the Scottish National Party, which strongly advocates for independence from the U.K., may have a nice victory on next elections with their newly-created platform of seeking independence based on a possible automatic admission to the European Union.

It was also mentioned in the article that Scots like to be called Scots, not Brits; the same goes for Wales (Welsh, not Brit) and so on. I did know that before. The article also said that British government, in the past few years, has given member countries much more power over their own matters than ever before. I did not know that before.

With all that said, my question is: if nobody likes to be British, why does the United Kingdom still exist? Why don't the four member countries split up, join the EU and start minding their own businesses?
posted by dcrocha to Society & Culture (25 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Much as in Canada (with the Quebec issue), there are powerful business interests that favour the status quo in the interests of the economy. The dissolution of a nation-state for any reason will always cause great uncertainty. Markets dislike uncertainty.

There is also a social aspect, whereby the majority can feel insulted, in a sense, that someone wants to leave. Again, I see this in Canada all the time -- you have a bunch of knuckle-heads outside Quebec who seem have no trouble thinking that the Quebecois are bunch of ungrateful idiots, while at the same time really being concerned that a lot of them want to leave.

Finally, inertia. No leader of a nation-state that has been around for hundreds of years wants to preside over its dissollution, for *any* reason.
posted by modernnomad at 12:09 PM on May 14, 2007

Because the power of the political elite would be much diminished. I'm sure that you will have noticed that the UK government likes to play Tonto to the US's Lone Ranger, riding around the world righting wrongs. I think our credibility in this role is stretched as it is and it would only get worse should the country split up.

Similarly, we trade on the size of our economy and particularly the financial markets. Again, the break-up of the UK would likely lessen these.

All of this would lead to a reduction in the reflected glory for the politicos to bask in. Consequently, central government has spread a lot of FUD regarding dissolution, and the populace is therefore unsure of the desirability of this option.

Also, as modernnomad points out, big business does not like uncertainty, and we all know who sets the policy agenda, right...........?
posted by Jakey at 12:15 PM on May 14, 2007

Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Whales also benefit economically from being a part of the UK. The English economy and industry is more self sufficient than the other constituents.

The extent to which the other three countries rely on England is a point of debate, which is why the SNP has supporters and opponents.
posted by whataboutben at 12:15 PM on May 14, 2007

If nothing else, federal governments are rarely thrilled when member states decide they want to bail. Secession wasn't altogether warmly greeted when the southern states tried it in the U.S., for instance. And it didn't work so great for Yugoslavia or the U.S.S.R. Most breakup attempts are resisted strenuously because nations don't generally enjoy getting smaller and therefore less powerful. Losing any component elements could risk losing valuable resources or populations.

There are also a lot of infrastructure complications to consider along the lines of who gets compensated for what (i.e. "Well, we just built you that bridge two years ago--do you think you're gonna get it for free now?") and who gets to retain ownership of certain properties and buildings.

Not entirely insignificant is the problem of military spending and bases. What if you have a really kick-ass port or airfield that's located in a breakaway state? Also, it seems to me that there could be a tendency for the new micro-countries to say, "Heh, we don't even NEED a military because our former brethren will always step up and protect us if we're attacked." And the former brethren might be resentful that the new country still wants to huddle under that military umbrella and get a free ride, to mix metaphors.

Of course, there are exceptions. The breakup of Czechoslovakia went pretty well, as I recall. But my (very ill-informed) recollection of that event was that it was the poorer and less-industrialized half of the country, Slovakia, that wanted to exit, and the Czechs were all "Really? Sure!"

Nevertheless, devolution of authority to semi-autonomous regions seems to be a growing trend, as we've seen in the U.K., Spain, and Canada.
posted by Midnight Creeper at 12:19 PM on May 14, 2007

The growth of trans-national free trade zones (EU, NAFTA) has removed some of the appeal of being part of a larger national entity. Apparently during the height of England's power, the UK was the world's largest free-trade zone. Now, not so much.
posted by GuyZero at 12:26 PM on May 14, 2007

Best answer: Well, for a start it's not entirely clear if the people of Wales and Scotland do want independence. The SNP has not been given a decisive mandate, and based on the election results a referendum on independence in Scotland would probably reject the idea at this moment. This is especially true if you consider the fact that while people are happy to tell pollsters that they think independence is a good idea, they might very well think twice about voting for it in the referendum itself. There's also the question of the nature of a successor state - how would it be constituted? People might reject a real concrete alternative independent Scotland, while favouring their own vision of how an independent Scotland should be. To echo the Australian referendum "no" campaign a few years ago, they might decide "not this republic" while favouring independence in abstract terms.

One problem is that you can't treat regional elections like referenda on independence, however much the SNP might like to think that they are. The Scottish people have also been voting for an administration to administer the country, to raise taxes and fund programmes, not simply on the philosophical question of home rule. And Labour, as the national party of government and the dominant party in Scotland, is presently pretty unpopular - the swing to the SNP can be presented as a swing away from Labour. Devolution, the new powers for Edinburgh and Cardiff, has to some extent shot the nationalists' fox and removed some of their chief complaints. The SNP must now demonstrate that it can govern as well as campaign if it wants to progress further towards independence.

In Wales there's really very little impetus for indepence. An "independent" Wales would be economically dependent on England. Unlike in Scotland, the primary aim of the Welsh nationalist sentiment has been to protect Welsh culture and language, and most of those battles have now been won.

On top of all that, there's a lot to be said for the Union. We have had some fairly large successes over the past 300 years, and there's some very real fondness for the compact around that polls don't pick up, partly because Britishness is quite hard to define. As for Scots and the Welsh not wanting to be called British, some do, some don't - what REALLY pisses them off is being called English, or people using the terms "British" and "English" interchangeably, as if they are the same thing. That's like calling a New Zealander Australian, or a Canadian American.

As for Northern Ireland, independence is out of the question. Its troubled history means that it has a great deal of difficulty self-governing, and has mostly been run directly from London. It has just this last week embarked on a new experiment with self-government, but it's a long way from nationhood.
posted by WPW at 12:29 PM on May 14, 2007 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The first thing to realise with the rise of the SNP is that it can't be simply ascribed to a rise in nationalist feeling. The Labour party was the dominant party is Scotland for many years, but there's people are feeling rather disillusioned with them. The parties that would normally gain votes due to protest votes in England have not in Scotland, for various reasons. The Conservative party is just a no-no for a lot of Scots, due to Margaret Thatcher (you can look up the Poll Tax if you want one of the reasons why - there are others) being so unpopular here and still not a distant memory. The Liberal Democrats were part of a coalition in the Scottish Parliament, so switching votes wouldn't be a big protest against Labour. The Scottish Socialist Party had been gaining popularity since it was set up, but a recent scandal split it in two, and therefore its votes. The SNP has been around for a while, and aren't promising independence, but a referendum of independence - people won't be put off so much by the idea that a vote for SNP is a vote for separation. With a minority SNP government in the Scottish Parliament, even the referendum looks unlikely.

The sense of "Scottish Identity" for many people, in my opinion, is similar to the sense of belonging to a town, or city, state or football/hockey team. I'd call myself Scottish before British, but I'd still say I'm British. I personally used one of my votes for SNP in the elections, but that was more due to a lack of alternatives. I don't want a independent Scotland. Something else interesting is the accusations in some newspapers that the UK is run by a "Scottish Mafia", referring to a high number of Scottish MPs in the Cabinet. Add that to the West Lothian question (Scottish MPs can vote on matters that only apply to England) and we may soon see calls for English independence from Scotland...
posted by liquidindian at 12:31 PM on May 14, 2007

or a Canadian American.

Or a Texan a Southerner. ;)

The BBC podcasts that I listen to discuss all of this extensively on a regular basis. More so now that the SNP did so well in this election. Apparently education has a LOT to do with it as well, although there is a huge amount of debate over that from what I can tell as a way, way, WAY far outside observer. I am very interested in what Scots and Welsh do have to say about all of this, though, which is why i was gravitating toward this thread.
posted by smallerdemon at 12:34 PM on May 14, 2007

Response by poster: or a Texan a Sourtherner. ;)

or a Brazilian an Argentinean! :)

I decided to ask this question because I seem to be seeing a stream of news lately regarding Scottish nationalism and eventual depart from the U.K., and this article gave me the impression this is just about to happen, which is obviously not true.
posted by dcrocha at 12:46 PM on May 14, 2007

From what I can tell (since I live here and all) as somewhat of an outsider, is that people in Britain have got whinging down to a fine art. I'm not knocking it (I rather like it, since it keeps things honest)... but I think the SNP will just whinge and whinge and nothing will ever happen. Scotland isn't going anywhere, The new govt in NI is just getting its shit together, and there's no SNP analogue in Wales screaming for independence. Devolution seems fine as it is.
posted by chuckdarwin at 12:48 PM on May 14, 2007

Best answer: Other things that may interest you are the new Prime Minister-in-waiting (the news today is that he will be challenged to be the new Labour leader, but don't bet against him) Gordon Brown, a Scot; and the Barnett Formula, which gives more money per head to Scotland than any other part of the country in terms of public expenditure. Brown is obviously against independence (apart from anything else, he'd have to quit his new job) and the Barnett formula is a good reason for Scotland to stay in the union.
posted by liquidindian at 1:20 PM on May 14, 2007

What liquidindian said. The SNP victory doesn't much reflect popularity of devolution in Scotland, but it is a bit of an indication on the national feeling over Iraq. The day before the election the SNP were leafleting houses with sheets of yellow paper containng only the words "WE ARE NOW THE ONLY PARTY WHO CAN STOP LABOUR" in large type. It worked.
posted by fire&wings at 1:30 PM on May 14, 2007

The current PM is also a Scot. :)
posted by fire&wings at 1:31 PM on May 14, 2007

The current PM is also a Scot. :)

Born in Edinburgh and going to Fettes college is less Scottish that someone from Fife who went to Kirkcaldy High School. Unless it's St Andrew's in Fife. Have you seen the wall around Fettes? That's to stop the bagpipe-playing and kilt-wearing that goes on outside infecting anyone.
posted by liquidindian at 1:40 PM on May 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

Because a lot of my ancestors died to make it that way, and I'll be damned if I'm going to let a bunch of whinging Scots vote their way out of it!

Or at least, that's what my Granddad would say.
posted by madajb at 2:07 PM on May 14, 2007

No leader of a nation-state that has been around for hundreds of years wants to preside over its dissollution

Well, the current UK dates back only to 1921, when the Union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland was instituted. Prior to this, the "UK of Great Britain and Ireland" was constituted in 1801 with the union between the UK and the Kingdom of Ireland. Prior to this, the UK came into existence in its original formulation when the Kingdoms of Scotland and England combined. Prior to this, in 1603, the Kingdoms of England and Scotland had been unified under a common monarchical succession. Prior to this, the Kingdom of Ireland was formed in 1540 or so.

Given this, the UK seems to last around a century or so between re-configurations.

As others have pointed out, the existence of the EU has removed much of the economic benefits that came from political union between smaller states. One of the major recent campaign points of the SNP is that English economic policies are retarding Scotland's economic growth, and that it could do better by emulating the example of the Republic of Ireland. Given Scotland's access to North Sea oil, it seems odd that its per-capita GNP and standard of living are so much lower than that of Norway (which shares access to the oil).

The EU has already dealt with the issue of political secession among member countries. After Greenland's secession from Denmark, Greenland remained as an EEC member until it voted to leave. Basically, the successor states of current EU members inherit EU membership. An independent Scotland would be a full EU member.

When Catalunya voted in a referendum last year to become a "nation", the Spanish central government in Madrid basically ignored it. I can't think an independent Scottish vote to secede would be any different.

Finally, it's alwatys seemed odd to me that the UK is a "political union", yet manages to field so many soccer and rugby teams for each region. The Spanish, French, and Germans only get a single team each. Something's not right there.
posted by meehawl at 2:13 PM on May 14, 2007

Thirding liquidindian. Except that it's not just gordon brown, vast numbers of senior MPs are scottish.
posted by spark at 2:16 PM on May 14, 2007

A break-up would be painful, complicated, and disruptive, and there aren't quite enough people ready to stomach the real consequences of that change, even if the polls suggest approving murmurs towards the idea of independence. The SNP failed to get a resounding mandate for independence in the latest elections, so a referendum is not going to happen any time soon. I expect the only thing that will propel such major constitutional reform to the forefront of public opinion is the death of the Queen, and the prospect of a King Charles (probably to be known as King George VII).
posted by hoverboards don't work on water at 2:18 PM on May 14, 2007

In pure legal theory terms (which is so divorced from practicality and political reality as to make it a non-issue, but it's interesting anyway), there's also the question over whether Parliament has the power to repeal the Act of Union 1707 (joining England and Scotland), given that some feel that the current Parliament was created by it, and as such the Act occupies a higher position. Counter-argument would be that other Acts of Union (GB and Ireland) have been successfully dismantled.
posted by djgh at 2:31 PM on May 14, 2007

Finally, it's alwatys seemed odd to me that the UK is a "political union", yet manages to field so many soccer and rugby teams for each region.

Well, that's generally because the national governing bodies predate the international ones. And those bodies were formed in the days when a cross-border match would have been logistically impossible.

'British' national identity has always been ideological. It was created oppositionally: anti-French, anti-Catholic. It was designed to paper over the replacement of the Stuarts with a Dutch stadtholder and then a Hanoverian elector.

Ulster Unionists like being British. Ethnic minorities have generally self-identified as 'British' because it doesn't have the latent ethnic presumptions of the component nations. And most of all, it'd be a gigantic hassle to dissolve the union, and the existing problems (not least the West Lothian question) just get muddled through.

The EU is good for small nations. But it's also been good for regions. If you can look after regional interests within that framework without the hassle of an official divorce, all the better.
posted by holgate at 2:47 PM on May 14, 2007

Nevertheless, devolution of authority to semi-autonomous regions seems to be a growing trend, as we've seen in the U.K., Spain, and Canada.
posted by Midnight Creeper at 8:19 PM on May 14 [+] [!]

Canada's current situation isn't really devolution, so much as never fully together, there was no de-volving to happen. The provinces were mostly independent before joining Canada, and kept many of their powers at confederation. Lower Canada (Quebec) and Upper Canada (Ontario) were joined briefly, but most of their history before 1867 was still separate. We're more centralised than the US, but still more decentralised than Britain.

And to be nitpicky on meehawl (whose comments I do always enjoy) --

As you noted, the current United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland was created in 1921, replacing the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland which had been created in 1801. Prior to that, however, Britain was simply the Kingdom of Great Britain, and there was no "United" bit, though the crown also held the Kingdom of Ireland as a separate country.

Great Britain itself was not created until 1707, when the countries of Scotland and England joined in the Act of Union. In 1603, the English and Scottish crowns had been united in one man - James I or VI - but the thrones weren't united at all. They continued to be separate countries, with separate parliaments, separate international and military agendas. Scotland declared war on Charles I, for instance, before England, and made peace with him earlier too (thus the invasion by the English under the Parliament). They were officially no more joined than Britain and Canada are today (since they also share a head of state); unofficially, the head of state in the 17th century was much more directly powerful, and so the two countries were quite "united" by virtue of having the same king (also republican England had conquered Scotland in the Civil Wars, but independence was restored in 1660, so that was a blip). The two countries decided they wanted to get properly United in 1707, because (basically) the English were afraid the Scots would go for a Stuart on the throne instead of a Hanoverian (possibly leading to war), and the Scots wanted access to the increasingly lucrative English Colonies (after their own failed miserably). So England got stability, and Scotland got in on the (now) British Empire.

Before 1603, Elizabeth had ruled two kingdoms -- the Kingdom of England (with Wales as previously annexed principality) and the Kingdom of Ireland, while her cousin James ruled Scotland - and again, England and Ireland were separate countries, which just happened to be ruled by the same person, and the people chosen by that crown (which could be the same people, but Ireland still had its own parliament until 1800). All this stuff - whether countries were officially united or not - did matter, even when they had the same ruler, because it meant that they had local parliaments (or, in the case of Wales, was a personal fiefdom of the king with no parliamentary consent to law), local laws, adminstration, etc, and there was no central government over all of them, except in the person of the monarch.
posted by jb at 3:39 PM on May 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

Given the number of senior Scottish Labour MPs, I also find it unlikely that Labour could support disunion between England and Scotland in the forseeable future. In such an arrangement, were the newly independent Scottish MPs not to take seats in Westminster, the Conservative (and ?Unionist?) Party would gain a much improved plurality in the newer, smaller Westminster government (given that its base tends towards the south-eastern portion of the island of Great Britain). It seems almost ironic, then, that that party which would stand to gain the most strategically from disunion is the Tories, who are historically opposed to such a development.
posted by meehawl at 6:03 AM on May 15, 2007

Um, great answers but they all seem to be missing the point. All have the same Monarch.
posted by Pollomacho at 6:08 AM on May 15, 2007

All have the same Monarch.

As does Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the Irish Free State (until 1949). Not to mention over a dozen other Commonwealth Realms. That answer, while alluringly simple, doesn't actually qualify very much.

We haven't even got into a discussion here, yet, of what exactly defines "British". You could be a British Citizen, a Citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies, a British Overseas Territories Citizen, a British Overseas Citizen, a British Subject, a British National (Overseas), or a British Protected Person. A post-secession Scotland would presumably enable its citizens to obtain one or more of these "British" categories, or create an entirely new one. For instance, my grandmother, born in southern Ireland while it was part of the UK can still claim to be a "British Citizen". My father, born in the Irish Free State, can still claim to be a "British Subject".

Is there a country with a more byzantine system of nationality and citizenship than the UK? I doubt it.
posted by meehawl at 10:33 AM on May 15, 2007

As does Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the Irish Free State (until 1949). Not to mention over a dozen other Commonwealth Realms. That answer, while alluringly simple, doesn't actually qualify very much.

And we don't even get to go into the short line at Heathrow! 200+ years of loyalty to the Crown, and we get diddlysquat. Lots of people from countries who have fought wars with Britain in the last century get to go to the quick European line, but her oldest and truest allies? The people whose ancestors fought in both World Wars (from the beginning) and who died in high proportions on a foreign continent to defend Britain -- we have line up with rebels like the Americans.

/ grumble, grumble, I hate what the EU has done to the Commonwealth, grumble
posted by jb at 7:34 AM on May 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

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