The B-Word (Might Not Mean Brexit)

The B-Word (Might Not Mean Brexit)

Sex, religion and who-you-voted-for used to be taboo subjects. But life changes. The weak are a long time in politics on both sides of the aisle, and today’s early-morning thought processes gave rise to certain musings on the word ‘Brexit’.

Colours to the mast: I’m a fairly staunch remainer. I have absolute respect for leavers’ opinions, plus sympathy and empathy for those who believe, even at this late stage in the game, we can ever effect an orderly, cost-effective exit. I just happen to think we’re better off in than out.

If, however, if it happens, and if – if – as might be the case, Scotland then lurches towards its own independence … then common sense will dictate that we’ll need a new way to describe what’s left of the United Kingdom. A name is important. Scotland might actually do this in the very near future – and what would we call the un-UK after that?

Somewhere in the deepest, darkest recesses of Whitehall, I’m surethis is already the subject of a bi-monthly meeting. If the absolute worst happened, we’d need a new name for the un-United Kingdom. The good news is there’s one name that’s obvious, and it’s not the Un-You-Kay.

The problem is, we’ve fallen into the embarrassing habit of using the wrong names for what we have now. Brace yourselves. England and Scotland are not – technically – countries. The words/phrases ‘England’, ‘Wales’, ‘Scotland’, and ‘Northern Ireland’ are often used as the names of individual countries, but that’s a mistake. They are in fact the official way of describing the four regional areas of the United Kingdom. They are regions, not countries – and you’re wrong if you want to fight me on this. The Kingdom of Scotland and the Kingdom of England (including Wales) were dissolved by the 18th Century ‘Acts of Union’, which created the Kingdom of Great Britain. Later, this became The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. 

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) curates the list of recognised countries, and “The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” is still the official country-level entry on that list.

There are 162 places on planet Earth with official country status. England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are not among them. This is a problem. I’m glossing over the fact the ISO listing for the UK’s subdivisions, compiled by British Standards and the ONS, uses ‘country’, conveniently, to describe England, Scotland and Wales.

Justin Kunimune: CC BY-SA 4.0 – The Dymaxion Map. Because, icosahedrons.

You see, the challenge arose as the Empire contracted: common parlance tried to make sense of confusion while all the pink bits still mattered. Look at any piece of writing connected to The Commonwealth and you’ll see the word ‘country’ used to describe the three mainland regions that make up a land mass somewhere north of France. But officially, they’re not countries. And with the exception of the BBC, nobody bothers to correct this mistake.

According to Aunty, the ‘home countries’ is about as close as we should be allowed to get, but even then, that phrase refers to the unification of two Kingdoms (England and Scotland) and two Principalities (Wales and Northern Ireland). For all its foibles, the BBC does set some standards here: the Corporation refers to its broadcasting as being operational ‘in the Nations and Regions’, not ‘in each country’. This is the official (BBC) taxonomy:

  • Three regions – England, Scotland, and Wales – make up Great Britain, the island.
  • In turn the United Kingdom is a country that comprises Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
  • And the British Islands – not the British Isles you note – tacks on the Isle of Man, Guernsey, and Jersey to its legal and geographical definition.
  • The British Isles, on the other hand, includes Ireland as an individual island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and a legal state – a separate state entity to Northern Ireland.

So  – SHOCK, HORROR! – if you work back a step or two then I’m sorry, but Brexit doesn’t actually mean Brexit. Actually, England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland leaving the European Union en masse means GrBrNIexit – which is just ridiculous, in every sense of the word.

That Clarkson-sized bombshell aside, the question is this: what would happen to our naming conventions when, or if, Scotland decided to change its legal distinction, as an integral part of the United Kingdom? Irrespective of timing, the United Kingdom without Scotland would leave us sad, deeply disheartened (I’m a Henderson after all is said and done), and with a mahoosive great problem. If Scot-left, we’d have England, Wales, and Northern Ireland left as regions in the (barely) united anything. For the morphemologists among you, that’s an E, a W, an N and a small I. At a push, you could knock out an eye.

On the surface – on the surface of the globe, that is – we’d still be a united land mass, wouldn’t we? And as long as there’s no intent to start digging a trench from Marshall Meadows to Mossband, that land mass would still be the physical manifestation of a state known as Great Britain. But we’d be obliged to acknowledge the fact that Scotland had left the United Kingdom, and to do so, surely, via new a naming convention. A bit like changing a letterhead.

Don’t hesitate to move rapidly away from the idea we could rename ourselves WiNEland: it’s a nice idea but the UN would have some reservations, I’m sure. NiEWland might work, but it wouldn’t have that schwing to it. A Kingdom of any kind may not be favourable for modern citizen, so it’s clearly a process of Scrabblesque letter-shuffling – or maybe not. 

Technically, we’d be the United Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland. We’d have to be referred to as UKEWNI. That acronym would service the need for differentiating the old UK from the new UK without Scotland. UKEWNi. UKWENi. UKWiNE – nope. Whichever order the letters were in, that simply wouldn’t work. One variation would: we could call ourselves NEW Britannia.

NEW Britannia would work on a map. We could justify it, too. The three initial letters – N, E and W – would be a nod to the inclusion of three regions in a new world order. But the main term would also reflect the fact that Scotland was never part of ‘Britannia’ as it used to be when the Romans coined the phrase. (Okay, minor glitch: variations of a newbritannia domain name have been registered by persons unknown, but I’m sure Whitehall can make plans for situations like that).

NEW Britannia. It’s got a certain something. It’s easy on the eye. Best of all, perhaps, the logic behind it is so straightforward, we wouldn’t need a referendum…

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