Britain. What Is They? Who Are It?


The final result of the Scottish Independence Referendum is still some hours off, so I will avail of this last chance to speculate. What will happen to Great Britain if Scotland really does leave?

Well nothing. Great Britain is the name of an island, not a country. Not even the proper name for it in fact – the more historical one is simply Britain.

So where did the “Great” come out of? I get the impression that a lot of British people vaguely think of it as a title their country was awarded somehow. At a country show, presumably. I have even heard people who should know better espouse the folk etymology that Britain refers to the combination of England and Wales, which became Great Britain with the addition of Scotland. That is of course completely made up.

Great Britain is simply the English for the French name for Britain – Grande Bretagne – and might be more accurately if prosaically rendered “Big Britain”.

Little Britain in this instance being Bretagne – or as we call it, Brittany – a province of France that was settled by people from Britain and where a language closely related to Welsh is still spoken today, now and again. Somewhat ironically perhaps, these British colonists were actually refugees, fleeing from the foreign invader we now know as the English.

Well partly, them – to be honest they were being invaded from Ireland too. After the Romans withdrew from Britain it was basically a warrior’s free-for-all.

So Britain was called Great Britain merely to avoid confusion with the French name for a Welsh colony. It’s like an irony layer cake. But French was the dominant language of much of Europe – and indeed, of Britain – for many centuries, so the “Great” stuck.

And still sticks today, and becomes ever more sticky. It is now kind of embarrassing, used when they can’t think of an idea for a cooking programme, or for politicians to clutch when they have reached the absolute nadir of rhetorical inspiration. It is high time a way was found to retire the term. And if Scotland does ever leave, that would be the moment. To refer to what remained as Great Britain after that would sound like sarcasm.

But what else could the remaining country be called? Well the answer is obvious, and I’m surprised it didn’t come up more in the debate. It would of course be the United Kingdom of Southern Britain and Northern Ireland.

I think it has a ring to it, no?

High-Speed Chicken Crisis

This is an actual serious real statue
This is an actual serious real statue

Today a pair of chickens that flew off in opposite directions came home to roost. I’m needlessly introducing the concept of flying chickens here, but bear with me. We are seeing two long processes reaching the crunch simultaneously: EU integration, and Thatcherism.

That these would reach a joint crisis point was perhaps predictable. They were two trains going to different destination while trying to use the same tracks. I’ve already given up on keeping my metaphors coherent. This has been on the cards for… Well, about thirty years. Ever since Margaret Thatcher brought a value-for-money attitude to bear on the idealism of the European process. Since then, Britain has been avowedly in Europe for what it can get out of it, and this has grown into a weird political schizophrenia as politicians, Tories especially, cynically portray a Britain-versus-Brussels conflict for domestic electoral advantage while their businesses reap the rewards of the Union.

The chicken of integration has come up against the buffers of political reality too though. It was never likely that a single currency would succeed without real central monetary authority, but the project was started – in typical political compromise fashion – with only the bits everyone liked. I’m sure deep down they knew it would take a crisis to complete the process; I doubt they envisaged this though.

That it should turn into a crisis over the direction and even definition of the Union was also perhaps foreseeable. Creating EU-wide financial controls that have a hope of stabilising the European economy would entail reversing some of the banking deregulation that, while bringing vast profits to relatively few, helped precipitate the recent crises. And which, since the Thatcher revolution, has been so championed by the UK – perhaps because that same few has a disproportionate influence over the Conservative party.

So we just saw the UK use its veto to block a decision that the Eurozone countries see as vital to their financial survival. Now there is no other option except an international, multilateral treaty between – it now appears likely – every EU country except Britain. A treaty that will, if you will, be a massive Fuck You, UK.