If you are somewhere in the big broad world outwith the UK, can you see this? It’s probably best to check since the part time prime minister and full time ego artiste who goes by the stage name Boris Johnson has told us all that people in the rest of the world don’t see Scotland, or the other countries of the UK, they just see one glorious Britain. According to Johnson, that’s the magic of the UK, a magic that he fears losing if Scotland becomes independent. There’s a Conservative PM there, telling the Scottish public that he can make Scotland disappear, like it was a good thing. If you feel something kicking you in the kidney, it’s only the rabbit which is also in the hat he’s consigned us to. It’s one of those union benefits.
The bloviating one was appearing for a photo-op in Essex, because appearing for photo-ops is what passes for leadership in the UK these days. He used the occasion to tell those of us who are unfortunate enough not to be able to dismiss him as an eccentric and authoritarian foreign leader that people in the UK don’t realise how the UK is perceived abroad. You need the lofty heights of Boris Johnson’s immense erudition to realise that you see, something which we lesser mortals will never come close to even if our French accents are far better than Boris Johnson’s strangulation of la belle langue française.
Apparently, people in furren pairts don’t perceive Scotland, England, Wales, or Northern Ireland, they only see one united kingdom, one generous and giving Britain, one fount of goodness admired and loved throughout the globe. Which is the kind of thing that could only be said by someone who has either never lived abroad, or who if they have lived abroad have never learned the language, or if they did learn the language they never listened to anything that anyone told them that didn’t fit in with their preconceived notions about how great the UK is. You know, a person who thinks that they are an expat, and not a immigrant. A person who believes that they are in furren pairts to teach the natives about the benefits of blighty, and who doesn’t think that another country could have anything to teach them.
The remark came shortly after the foreign secretary and steroid rage survivor Dominic Raab opined that the UK would be saved and Scottish independence averted by Boris Johnson’s “optimistic fizz”. Unfortunately the closest to a fizz that Boris Johnson gives the Scottish public is the hangover medication we all require after drinking ourselves into oblivion to forget the fact that we have the toe curling Boris bloody Johnson representing Scotland to the rest of the world.
The truth is that people in furren pairts for the most part don’t distinguish between Britain and England. The two terms are largely interchangeable for them. That’s how Boris Johnson can tell us that people abroad only see Britain, because for him there’s no distinction between Britain and England. But if you’re not English, you are constantly reminded, and constantly having to remind your foreign friends and acquaintances that you are not in fact English.
While travelling in Finland many years ago, I met a German woman who asked where I was from. I told her I was Scottish. “Oh, England,” she replied. “No. Scotland.” I told her. “I think you’ll find that you are in fact English,” she told me. To which I replied, “And I think you’ll find that you are in fact talking shite. I know a lot more about my own national identity than you do.”
For any Scot abroad, this sort of experience is not uncommon. When living in Spain my Spanish friends used to introduce me to others as “Paul, mi amigo escocés-no-le-llames-inglés-porque-le-cabrea.” (Paul, my Scottish-don’t-call-him-English-because-it-pisses-him-off friend.”
Just after moving to Spain, my late husband Andy – who was English – and I had to register as residents at the local town hall. In the nationality box on the form he put inglés, and I put escocés. The official happily accepted Andy’s form, but told me that she couldn’t accept mine because “Scottish isn’t a nationality”. A long debate followed about how if she accepted “English” as a nationality, then she needed to accept “Scottish” too, seeing as how the United Kingdom is only a United Kingdom because the Kingdom of England and the Kingdom of Scotland came together following the Treaty of Union and created it. Despite this she still wouldn’t accept “Scottish”, and I had to register as británico. For any Scot who lives abroad, you spend your life educating your new friends and neighbours, workmates and casual acquaintances, that Scotland is in fact a country in its own right.
For most people abroad the terms English and British, or England and Britain, are synonymous. The most common way of referring to the UK in Spanish is Inglaterra. In the exact same way during the days of the Soviet Union, people in the rest of the world generally referred to the Soviet Union as Russia, despite the fact that Russia was only one of the fifteen constituent republics that made up the Soviet Union.
Before any British nationalist gets on their high horse, I’m not trying to say that Scotland is treated by the UK in the same way that say, Estonia, was treated by the Soviet Union – with mass deportations, political repression, and a deliberate and concerted attempt to alter the demographics of Estonia with a massive planned inward migration of Russians which aimed to reduce Estonians to a minority in their own country.
The point is that any multinational state like the old Soviet Union or the modern UK, which is dominated by one nation which is larger than all the others combined, will be identified abroad with that numerically and politically dominant nation. That’s exactly what happens abroad with the UK. As far as the rest of the world is concerned, unless they have Scottish (or Welsh) people nipping their ears about it, the UK is the same as England. Despite what Boris Johnson claims, it’s Scotland and Wales and Northern Ireland which are made invisible by the UK, not England. It’s very easy for an English nationalist like him to claim that people abroad only see Britain, when those people abroad use Britain as a synonym for England.
The claim by British nationalists that being a part of the UK allows Scotland to “punch above its weight”, and to attain a global prominence that would otherwise be denied to it, is a lie. Being a part of the UK makes Scotland invisible. It’s that vanishing act which is the real magic of the UK, a nefarious magic that works against Scotland’s interests.
In Europe at least, there has been an increasing realisation over the past few years that Scotland is a different country. That’s because of Brexit. People in the European Union are aware far more than they previously were that Scotland is a distinct nation within the UK, and moreover it’s a nation which is markedly more European in its outlook, its sympathies, and its sensibility than Brexit Britain.
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