I sometimes read Scottish nationalists arguing that it is somehow illegitimate to support the Union, as the UK is an artificial construct and Britain is not a nation. Sometimes they back up this argument with discussion about the the history of the Act of Union of 1707 and what was agreed between Scotland and England all those years ago. It is almost as if they consider that Scotland is just the same as it was prior to 1707 and just as much a nation as it would have been if the Union had never happened.
Historical debate is, of course, fascinating, but it can be incredibly difficult to resolve arguments by appealing to history. This is not least because very eminent historians can have such radically different views on the same events. I’ve read historians who think that Scotland was subsumed by the Union, while others emphasise how we retained our distinct nationhood. No doubt, each side brings its present political views to the investigation of the past and attributes to that past ideas that were not even dreamed of then.
It is however, possible, I believe, for unionists and nationalists to come to some sort of consensus on this matter by reflecting that whatever disagreement there may be between them is more a confusion about certain words like “nation” and “country” that can be used in a variety of senses.
Is Scotland a nation? Yes, of course. After all, we talk of the Six Nations Rugby Championship in which Scotland takes part. Moreover, the UK is commonly described as a multinational state, which implies that it is made up of nations. This type of state is not particularly uncommon. India is a multinational state made up of many ethnic groups who speak a variety of languages and follow a variety of religions. Present day Russia likewise has many different ethnic groups, religions and languages and has many constituent Republics. Nearly every European Country is formed from formerly independent countries. Some of these may be referred to as nations. Often this depends on a person’s political viewpoint. Someone who supports independence may describe Catalonia or Flanders as a nation. Someone else may not. There is nothing therefore incorrect or unusual about describing Scotland as a nation. The words may be different in various languages and the useage somewhat varied, but in principle we’re dealing with the same idea. I can ask someone in Germany what “Land” he is from and it would be correct for him to answer Saxony. I can ask someone in the United States what State he is from and it would be correct to for him to answer Texas. If such a person were a nationalist, or if the useage of his language allowed it, he might describe where he comes from as his nation. In all events however, the reality would be the same. A constituent part of a multinational state can be described as a nation, or a country or a state. It amounts to the same thing. However, the word “nation” when it is used in this way is crucially used in a different sense from when it is used as part of the the phrase “nation-state.”
If asked which country I’m from I can answer Scotland or Britain or the UK. Some people prefer to describe themselves as Scottish and not British. This is perfectly legitimate. Here language is determined by identity and the aspiration for Scotland to be independent. No one has to feel British. It should however, be admitted by Scottish independence supporters that many Scots do feel British and that this is likewise legitimate. But if I am asked my nationality on an official form, it is likely that in certain circumstances I will have less leeway. Often it is necessary to reply that I am British. This is because such forms are commonly not asking about my sense of identity but about the nation-state where I am a citizen. If, for example, I filled out a Russian visa form and put that I was Scottish, there would be every chance that the form would be rejected. The conclusion that can be drawn from this is that the word “nation” can be used fairly loosely and in a variety of senses, but the word “nation-state” cannot.
Many nation-states can be described as more or less artificial constructs. If this means anything, it means that they were constructed from formerly independent constituent parts and that this happened owing to the accidents of history and for a variety of complex reasons. In this sense, the United States is an artificial construct, as is Spain, as is the Netherlands. The history of most nation-states is the history of often arbitrary decisions, of wars won that might have been lost, of conquest and of injustice. All of these things can be described as artificial and they all were necessary to make the present day nation-state. Even Scotland was once a collection of warring kingdoms called unfamiliar names like Fortriu and Dál Riata, speaking a variety of languages and with various cultures and identities. Prior to this, no doubt, we were a collection of warring tribes. If I had a mind to, I could probably go back to a time when Aberdeenshire was independent, ruled by some feudal lord. I could, if I chose, describe this place as my nation. When we delve into history looking for our nation, there is no particular reason to pick the present day boundaries of Scotland. All is arbitrary. All an artificial construct. Scotland is just as much a union as the UK. It’s just that this union occurred some hundreds of years earlier. There’s no rational reason why that should be decisive in determining our present day nation-state.
The question of whether Scotland is a nation can then be answered. Scotland in one sense is a nation and in another it is not. Scotland can be described as a nation in the same sense that Bavaria is described as a “Land”, Texas a “State” or Catalonia a “Nacionalidad” (nationality). This is simply a matter of language usage. Some constituent parts of nation-states are described as nations, others described as countries, others as republics, others still as regions. The reality is the same. Some of these places, like Catalonia or Flanders have significant numbers of people who seek independence, others do not. But there is nothing intrinsic in such places being constituent parts of nation-states, which makes independence either inevitable or desirable. Otherwise, it would follow that every nation-state, which was formed from formerly independent countries should break-up into those parts.
The sense in which Scotland is not a nation is the sense in which we are not a nation-state. It is this, which independence supporters want us to become, for the defining characteristic of a nation-state is that it is independent. Something clearly cannot become what it already is. Therefore, it is uncontroversial and independence supporters must agree that Scotland is not a nation in the sense of being a nation-state. This usage of the word “nation” as short for “nation-state” is the most common usage the world over and what most people mean when they talk of their nation. There are exceptions to this usage when a place or a people can be described as a nation even though they lack a nation-state. In Canada for instance there are “First Nations.” Such “nations” even sometimes have a seat at the United Nations. But the vast majority of UN nations are nation-states.
Is Britain a nation? In the most common usage of the word “nation” clearly it is, for Britain is a nation-state. To attempt to deny that Britain is a nation is therefore to simply misunderstand the the most ordinary usage of the word “nation.” Is Britain a nation in the looser sense that Scotland is a nation? This is more a question of identity. Is there such a thing as a British identity? Clearly there is. Lots of Scots feel it. Some do not. Some independence supporters don’t like the idea of a British identity. But to deny it exists is like trying to deny that Germans have an identity or that Spaniards do. Even if some Bavarians or Catalans want independence and deny their German or Spanish identity, it does not follow that everyone must do the same.
If Scotland were to become a nation-state it would be the goal of the Scottish Government and people to preserve this nation-state. It is in the natural order of things for a nation-state to seek to defend its borders and maintain its territorial integrity. In the event of independence therefore, it would be uncontroversial for Scots to seek to prevent the breakup of this nation-state called Scotland. But by the same token it is natural for British people to seek to prevent the breakup of our nation-state called the United Kingdom. In this we are no different from a German or an Italian striving to maintain the territorial integrity of his nation-state. It is this which Scottish nationalists frequently fail to understand and why there is commonly so little understanding between the opponents in the independence debate. Independence supporters frequently conflate the meanings of the word “nation.” The justification for independence is frequently founded on the implied assumption that Scotland already has or has somehow retained the properties of a nation-state. But this is not only circular, it is also self-defeating. For if Scotland already is a sovereign nation-state, there is no need to seek independence. It’s a simple matter of logic that you cannot become what you already are.