The Great British ‘Divorce’

Over the past few weeks more and more people have begun to ask my opinion on the Scottish independence debate. They assume (quite understandably) that as a historian of Anglo-Scottish social relations I must have some specialist insight into current events. I often don’t have the heart to correct them – hey, I’ve got an academic image to maintain!


This is the face of serious political commentary. The crab claws are not affiliated with the face.

In all seriousness though there are some aspects of current events I do feel suitably qualified to comment on. Lets clarify a few things first: this post is not about whether Scotland should stay or go. As a (nominal) Englishman I believe that question can only be answered by those in Scotland. Instead, I want to look at a metaphor for Scottish independence which keeps cropping up, usually from the ‘No’ campaign. That metaphor is ‘Divorce’. Here are a few prime examples:

“It is my duty to be clear about the likely consequences of a yes vote. Independence would not be a trial separation. It would be a painful divorce.” –David Cameron

“Most people (especially the Scots) have yet to think through the horrific financial and constitutional implications of an English-Scottish divorce.” – Boris Johnson

“After the love-bombing came the hint of steel, the equivalent of whispering: ‘By the way, if you walk out, you’re not getting to keep the car and the keys to the timeshare apartment.'” – The Daily Telegraph

“Divorce lawyers’ bickering over currency arrangements, nuclear weapons and economic advantage takes precedence over appraisal of what is at the heart of the marriage.” – The Guardian

For further examples of the divorce analogy see this article in the Guardian by Libby Brooks. The most extreme one I’ve found so far was actually posted in the Facebook page of one of my local churches:

let no man separate

‘demonic principality’? However we may have got here I don’t think it was due to an alliance between Beelzebub and Wales.

In case you’re wondering “What God has joined together let not man separate” are the words of Jesus in Mark 10:9, when the Son of Man took 10 minutes out of his schedule to discuss a political union which would take place in 1700 years time between two countries which didn’t even exist yet. Or he may have been talking about divorce between a husband and wife, it’s a bit of a moot point amongst Biblical scholars.

Anyway, the image we’re bombarded with is a love story between two countries. The fairy tale version of the marriage plays out something like this:

Once upon a time the dashing young Albion was out riding his silver stallion along the banks of the Tweed. He looked across the river and his gaze fell upon the beautiful red-haired Caledonia on her white mare. Almost instantly Albion was in love, and set about to win Caledonia’s heart. He wooed and he courted, and marriage exhorted until finally Caledonia agreed. The two were wed, and for many years lived alongside one another in bliss as Albion and Caledonia ‘Britannia’. Together they forged a flourishing kingdom and fought off evil enemies who were jealous of all they had achieved. Yet as time went on Caledonia grew sad. She began to long for a new life by herself, to make her own decisions and go her own way. Naturally Albion was heartbroken. As Caledonia contemplated whether to stay or go he leaned in close and whispered in her ear “Know this: if you leave us, we will miss you in our hearts. And you will miss us.”

I know what you’re thinking, but HANDS OFF! I’m already in talks with Disney. We’re hoping to provide comic relief with an animated goat voiced by Rob Brydon.

Not a baaaad idea eh?… I’m so sorry.

The fairy tale marriage is a nice way of looking at the union. Unfortunately it is a fairy tale. The marriage metaphor breaks down when you simply consider that the United Kingdom isn’t just England and Scotland. Wales and Northern Ireland contain nearly 5 million people between them, so how do they fit into this love story? In The Story of the Injured Lady (published 1746) Jonathan Swift presented Ireland and Scotland as the mistresses of England, an analogy which shows the slightly messier nature of the UK’s history. If Christopher Nolan’s Batman films have taught us anything it’s that everything needs a gritty reboot, and our fairy tale marriage is no exception. So in order to tell this story properly we must first fire Rob Brydon and replace him with Tom Hardy in full Bane-mode.

bane goat

“It does not matter who we are. What matters is our plaaaaaan.”

The gritty reboot version of the ‘marriage’ goes something like this (links go to wikipedia for the sake of simplicity. I’m also playing fast and loose with the characters’ genders because the language of sexuality is a very real issue in the Scottish independence debate):

Puffing on her cigar, Albion gazed across the Tweed. His eyes fell upon Caledonia who gazed back at him. Each felt like there was a certain ‘something’ between them, but they weren’t quite sure what it was. For the next few centuries they proceeded to beat the living snot out of each other, because nothing says “I love you” like a bit of Rough Wooing. Occasionally Albion turned on the charm offensive for Cymru and Hibernia, and for many years there was one almighty rumble in the Atlantic Archipelago.

Gradually things began to settle down, especially when Albion, Caledonia and Cymru glanced across the pond and realized that the one thing they hated more than each other was a bloke in Rome telling them what to do. Having previously kinda married Cymru, Albion invited Caledonia to join the two of them for a little tête-à-têteà-tête. Caledonia was uneasy, but he had recently lost a lot of money gambling in Panama so she decided to give it a go. Things were a bit messy for the first forty years and all parties still occasionally beat each other senseless. However, all that changed when their joint business venture ‘Subjugating Dark People (un)Limited’ really took off and made them a lot of money.

After an attempted affair with a gallant Gaul, Hibernia was ‘persuaded’ to join the marriage, having previously been little more than a customer of the business. He was never really happy in the marriage however, especially when she nearly starved and the other partners did nothing to help. Eventually Hibernia left the marriage, but as part of the divorce settlement Albion, Caledonia and Cymru got to cut off his head and keep it.

As the years went by the marriage became increasingly strained. After the collapse of the business Caledonia, Cymru and Hibernia’s head began to wonder whether marriage was still the right thing for them. Parts of Hibernia’s head kept trying to bite everyone, to which Albion responded with some furious beatings. All four of them eventually agreed to give each other a bit of space. They all remained in two minds about whether the marriage would work, but on Thursday Caledonia will decide whether to stay or go.

Disney have yet to call.


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