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I could use many examples here from European history, but I think (for several reasons) the most pertinent example would be Brittany. Historically, it was a completely independent country, and it also has the same "Celtic culture" that places like Scotland hold up as a major reason why they should be considered a country in their own right.

Yet Brittany is clearly considered nothing more than a region of France. People would probably think you a little odd if you referred to Brittany as a country.

What is the political reason behind the fact that Brittany was subsumed into France and lost country status, but Scotland (not to mention Wales and Ireland, before the Irish free state) were subsumed into the UK while retaining country status?

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    Lack of William Wallace?
    – user4012
    Apr 20, 2015 at 20:22
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    Scotland is not meaningfully a country. It is an autonomous region within the U.K.
    – ohwilleke
    Dec 28, 2021 at 7:23

4 Answers 4

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In the case of Scotland and Ireland they retained their own legal systems and were not incorporated into the jurisdiction of England and Wales. Being a separate legal jurisdiction can be a large factor in retaining the idea of being a distinct country (albeit in a unitary state) as can having a - to some extent - different culture which has developed in the many centuries before unification.

England and Wales are actually a single jurisdiction and although Wales is now often referred to as a "country" traditionally it has been referred to simply as a Principality which perhaps illustrates the point. I don't think there is any hard and fast rule.

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I would try to draw parallels from Russian language.

In Russian the word for country is strana.

It has different meanings:

  • A sovereign state.
  • An area with distinguishing features such as landscape, flora, fauna, people etc.

As you may know, Russia and the former USSR had some sub-national entities called "republics". But we do not call them "countries" because they are not independent. But if they become independent, we start to call them by the word for country. For instance, Ukraine was not a country when it was part of the USSR, but now we call it a country.

This reflects the first meaning.

The second meaning of the word one can observe when we can say that "Antarctica is the country of eternal ice", "Tibet is a country of the high mountains". In these sentences we do not mean that these are independent states but merely areas with distinguished features. We also could use the word for kingdom here, figuratively, without implying they were monarchies.

Thus Scotland may be viewed as an area with distinguished features, such as landscape, mountains, folklore etc.

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    The french word pays can also be used for both of those meaning. If someone says "La Bretagne est un beau pays" nobody will find that strange or anything. Thus it's not quite correct to say that Brittany is not a country.
    – Bregalad
    Apr 21, 2015 at 15:53
  • @Bregalad In fact, it's even more common to use the word pays for even smaller regions, e.g. pays de Dol, pays Rennais.
    – Relaxed
    Jun 9, 2015 at 13:05
  • But in Russian Scotland is not a country, and I personally think the status of Brittany and Scotland are pretty the same in the language.
    – dEmigOd
    Sep 3, 2018 at 8:25
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Scotland had a king. Its king was not shared with any other country until the seventeenth century. It was not incorporated into the United Kingdom of Great Britain until the eighteenth century.

Brittany did not have a king.

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    Interesting point, but, citing Wikipedia, "At the beginning of the medieval era, Brittany was divided between three kingdoms, Domnonea, Cornouaille and Broërec. These realms eventually merged into a single state during the 9th century.[24][25] The unification of Brittany was carried out by Nominoe, king between 845 and 851 and considered as the Breton pater patriae. His son Erispoe secured the independence of the new kingdom of Brittany and won the Battle of Jengland against Charles the Bald."
    – dEmigOd
    Sep 3, 2018 at 8:30
  • @dEmigOd Not having had a king for 1170 years and not having had a king for 300 years apparently is enough to make a difference.
    – ohwilleke
    Dec 28, 2021 at 7:22
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    Bavaria had a king long after Scotland, but isn't usually considered a country (although there were 20th century proposals for its independence).
    – Stuart F
    Dec 30, 2021 at 12:54
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First, let's disentangle two concepts:

  • A state is a political unit, where a particular government exerts legitimized control over a particular physical territory. 'Legitimized control' basically means that there is broad agreement at home and afar that this government has a right (in the sense of natural right or divine right) to exert that control.
  • A nation is a sociocultural unit, where a group of people share a group identity of some sort. That identity might come from religious beliefs, cultural norms or ideals, common language, common history, and/or other socially unifying factors.

In the ancient past nation-states where the norm, where a cultural group established its own governance and claimed its own territory, but as the size of states has increased over time it necessarily resulted in blended or multicultural states, with stateless nations existing within and across state boundaries. Pardon the digression...

For a state to persist as a sovereign entity, it must be able to maintain the borders of its territory so that its government can continue to exert control over that territory. This means having a military that can hold off the militaries of large expanding states, which generally means having territory that is naturally defensible. Places like Brittany, Catalan, and Wales lack natural borders. States located there could hold of comparably sized states, but were eventually overwhelmed by the outsized armies that larger states could wield. Compare that with places like Switzerland and Luxembourg, which are located in such difficult terrain that small standing armies can hold off massive forces.

When a state is overwhelmed by a larger force, thera are a few different things that can happen:

  • The conquering state can absorb the territory into itself, effectively erasing the old state. This usually happens when the conquered state is close to the seat of power of the conquerer, so that the conquerer can easily project power to hold that territory
  • The conquering state can set up the territory as a principality or province, where the local government continues to exert control over its territory, but pays fealty to the conquerer, and allows the conquerer many liberties (like unchallenged passage across the region's borders). This usually happens when the seat of power of the conqueror is more distant, and/or the conquered forces are still a formidable threat
  • The conquering state can set up the territory as a protectorate, taking little to no interest in the territory itself except as means to some other goal: e.g., for the extraction of resources, the placement of a military base, the protection of a land or sea route to somewhere else...
  • The conquering state can merely occupy the territory for a short term, often to remove a disliked government and install a new, more favorable one. This is generally a form of nuisance control: e.g., when a state wants to stabilize its borders, not expand them, or when a state wants to deal with an intransigent national group that extends across its borders

In short, the status of the weaker state depends on the difficult the stronger state has in taking and controlling the territory. Scotland had a notoriously fierce people and decently defensible terrain, located at a problematic distance from London (and an extreme distance from Rome).

Of course, changes in technology — military, travel, communication — have changed the political landscape. Nations and national groups are gaining political prominence because of the ease of virtual organizing and propagandizing; global economic interests are beginning to outweigh the ancestral concern for military protection of borders; individual citizens are becoming progressively more empowered, with (unsurprisingly) unpredictable results. Consider that the Catalan independence movement has gained a great deal of traction, and the Spanish government has received fiercely negative responses to its use of government force to suppress the movement; those outcomes would have been essentially unthinkable even a mere hundred years ago. Food for thought...

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    This has some interesting ideas, and attempts to tackle a complex subject, but there are problems. You're viewing it almost exclusively through military matters, but cultural factors are probably more important: some areas maintain a separate identity while others don't and that often has nothing to do with military might (Prussia was much stronger than Scotland but isn't considered a country today; southern Scotland isn't defensible and doesn't have an obvious border). Also you should note the multiple meanings of state (as in US where it means a sub-national unit).
    – Stuart F
    Dec 30, 2021 at 13:05
  • @StuartF: I'm using the political science definition of a state, which isn't really in question (and remember, US 'states' were originally envisioned as separate sovereign entities with defined borders; the federal system was meant to coordinate these independent states for mutual benefit). Cultural factors fall under the rubric of 'nation', as discussed, but while they ensure group cohesion across time, they have never been effective at retaining territory except through military intervention. States require borders, and borders require defense. Dec 30, 2021 at 17:19
  • @StuartF: Different territories require different forces to secure borders — some are easier and some harder, which is why a 'strong' state might fall where 'weak' ones persists — and the calculus is complex. But military force is the key element to securing territory across time. Dec 30, 2021 at 17:21

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