During the Olympics’ opening ceremony last week, the lady on the TV described the United Kingdom as “four countries: England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.” Soon after, every country in the world paraded out wearing everything from pajamas to grass.
Great Britain was there dressed like cocaine, but I didn’t see any kilts, aprons, or bowler hats. That’s because those are what people in Great Britain’s two kingdoms (England and Scotland) and one principality (Wales) wear. I wish Scotland was a real country, but it isn’t. The word “country” has been so diluted it now means “any group of people who consider themselves a country.” Nobody is as easily fooled by this ruse as my fellow Scots.
England calls themselves a country whenever they play soccer, but they rarely mention it otherwise because they know they are in charge. The Welsh seem fine with the idea that they’re merely a principality in a bigger country. They happily use English pounds and accept London’s Parliament as their own. They even root for England during the World Cup, something for which my Scottish parents will never forgive them. But Northern Ireland is so unhappy about the situation they are still blowing shit up in protest. When Americans see this, their first instinct is to placate. When Obama was in Ireland last year he said:
Yours is a history frequently marked by the greatest of trials and the deepest of sorrow. But yours is also a history of proud and defiant endurance. Of a nation that kept alive the flame of knowledge in dark ages; that overcame occupation and outlived fallow fields; that triumphed over its troubles—of a resilient people who beat all the odds.
We love the idea of sovereign nations so much we think wishing it will make it so. America lost 25,000 men defying British occupation and we blow shit up every summer in celebration. Unfortunately, Northern Ireland did not “overcome occupation” in 1921—they succumbed. No matter what Obama’s speechwriters say, Northern Ireland still belongs to the British.
Canada avoided the casualties and slowly bored the British away. Today the Queen remains on the money and she is still technically the head of state, but unlike Scotland, Canada is a country because it can do what it wants. (They attended the Olympics Parade of Nations and unlike Great Britain avoided most Worst Dressed lists.) Like Britain, Canada has its own groups it is trying to dupe into thinking they’re independent. The Indians there are told they’re sovereign and are even allowed to police themselves. The government gives them free houses but when the Indians try to sell their houses, they realize it was never really theirs. The state still owns the land. It’s state-sponsored freedom.
I lived in Taiwan for a while and everyone there seems convinced they live in a country totally independent of China. They have their own money, their own government, and they’re not even communist. However, when you send a letter from Taipei, the return address still ends with R.O.C. If America was to formally recognize Taiwan as an independent country, China would start blowing shit up that afternoon.
Geography nerd Matt Rosenberg lists eight criteria needed to define a country. Taiwan fails the first—“has internationally recognized borders”—while Scotland, England, Wales, and Northern Ireland fail most of the others. A country can institute its own laws, sell its own natural resources, and do something crazy like wage a war on someone else or merge with another country. Nobody cared about the Falklands until another country tried to take them.
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