Category Archives: Ireland

Britain and Scandinavia

The subject
Originally uploaded by Simon Collison

To what extent is Britain (or the British Isles) the same kind of construct as Scandinavia (or the Nordic countries)?

Both Britain and Scandinavia have a long and complex history, with periods of political unification and others with separate kingdoms and plenty of wars.

Scandinavia’s united period was a long time ago (1397–1523), while Britain only started falling apart when Ireland became independent again less than a century ago. On the other hand, the British Isles are to some extent more heterogenous than Scandinavia – the former is a mixture of Celts, Anglo-Saxons and Norman French, while the latter consists of the descendants of the Vikings with some Finns, Lapps and Germans thrown in.

In both cases in can be hard to pinpoint exactly what Britishness/Scandinavianness means. For instance, John Major’s description of Britishness – “Britain will still be the country of long shadows on cricket grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers and, as George Orwell said, ‘Old maids bicycling to holy communion through the morning mist’” – is so clearly a description of England that does not apply to Scotland and Ireland. In the same way, it’s very hard to define Scandinavian culture in one sentence. And yet, Scandinavians do recognise the similarities intuitively, and Scandinavians abroad tend to hang out together, for instance at international conferences.

So there are definite similarities. And just as Scandinavia does exist in spite of having been separate countries for half a millennium, Britain will always exist whether Scotland becomes independent in 2014 or not. Actually, Scottish independence might actually lead to a reevaluation of the concept, so that it ceases to be about a political construct and starts being about what actually binds people on these islands together, whether they live in Ireland, Wales, Man, Scotland or England.

Scotland and the rUK in the EU

I’ve blogged before about the fact that Scotland on its own has a very normal-sized population within an northern European context.

It’s quite illustrative to look at all the member states of the European Union (logarithmic scale):

Scotland (the small pink column) is slightly smaller than the average, being of almost exactly the same size as Denmark, Slovakia and Finland, and somewhat more populous than Ireland.

Interestingly, the graph also says something about England’s reluctance to let Scotland leave: While Germany is by far the most populous country, the current UK and France are competing for second place; however, without Scotland, both France and Italy have significantly larger populations that the Rest of the United Kingdom (rUK) – I’m sure this relegation won’t go down very well in certain quarters.

Not too small

When ordinary Scottish voters are asked whether they’d vote yes or no to Scottish independence, one frequent response is that Scotland is too small to be independent.

I really don’t understand how anybody can believe this. Surely it must be a consequence of living in a big country and being used to comparing yourself with Germany and France.

In reality, Scotland has a very average size for an independent country in northern Europe. Have a look at the graph on the left, which shows the population sizes of various northern European contries (it’s Scotland in blue).

Of course Scotland won’t have the same influence as England, but similar countries such as Denmark, Norway and Ireland typically feel they have plenty of influence.

I definitely don’t know of a popular movement in any country the size of Scotland that advocates joining a bigger neighbour because their country is too small to remain independent. Even very similar countries with a long shared history, such as Denmark and Norway, never seriously discuss becoming one country again.