26 MAY 2007, Page 19

Mind your language

We have enjoyed, or not, a certain amount of hoo-ha about whether Scotland should be independent. But independent from what? What is this country called?

In 1604 James VI of Scotland was proclaimed ‘King of Great Britain’, as well as of France and Ireland. The geographical term ‘Great Britain’ thereupon assumed a political unity, although two kingdoms continued to exist. The proclamation also spoke of England and Scotland as ‘nations’.

According to the Act of Union passed in England in January 1707, ‘the Two Kingdoms of Scotland and England, shall upon the 1st May next ensuing the date hereof, and forever after, be United into One Kingdom by the Name of GREAT BRITAIN’.

I don’t know about ‘forever’, but in 1707 it was clear that the kingdom was called Great Britain. It was equally clear that Queen Anne held the ‘Monarchy of the United Kingdom of Great Britain’.

So when people today speak of the United Kingdom, or worse of the ‘UK’, the term need not necessarily refer to anything bigger than the united kingdoms of Scotland and England. The kingdom of England included Wales, which the Act of Union didn’t bother to mention. The Act continued a prohibition of the import of victuals into Scotland ‘from Ireland or any other place beyond Sea’.

In 1707 Ireland was ruled by the Queen, consequent on an English Act of 1542 which established ‘that the King of England, his Heirs and Successors, be Kings of Ireland’. Ireland was landed with its own Act of Union in 1800, coming into effect in 1801, abolishing its own Parliament.

From 1921, Northern Ireland had its own Parliament, with a House of Commons and a Senate, yet it remained part of the United Kingdom. In 1973 an Act abolished that Parliament, and declared that Northern Ireland remained ‘part’ of the ‘United Kingdom’. This was repeated in the Northern Ireland Act of 1998.

Today, the government’s official website declares, ‘The United Kingdom is made up of four countries: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Its full name is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.’ But it adds, ‘On this site the term “Britain” is used informally.’ It seems sensible to refer to the United Kingdom as ‘Britain’. But I must say I find it odd to call Northern Ireland a ‘country’. It is not even a province. Wales just about scrapes in. Are the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands, which are not part of the United Kingdom, countries too?

Dot Wordsworth