I wrote this in September 2014 for our late lamented sister site May2015.com. With all the talk of another Scottish independence referendum, however, it suddenly seemed relevant again, so...
Here’s a very silly notion I decided to run with at some point in the middle of last night. If Scotland was a US state, which one would it be?
I don’t mean in terms of weather or dietary habits or interest in whisky, or any such thing. Rather, I’m interested in population: which US state contains roughly the same share of Americans as Scotland contains of Britons?
The answer, in fact, is another oil-fuelled territory with a long-standing belief in its own exceptionalism. Texas contains around 8 per cent of the US population, compared to Scotland’s 8.4 per cent. It’s also the second largest state by population – which sounds impressive, until you remember that there are fifty of these things.
Here, because I have too much time on my hands, is a map of the US, with the equivalents of the three Celtic nations clearly marked.
The point I’m making here isn’t really about Scotland or Wales or even the US at all. It’s about England. If those three states are the three Celtic nations, that means that, to match the relative scale of England, you must need all the other 47, plus the District of Columbia.
Doing things this way round is a bit of a cheat, of course: any selection of states that leaves England with the vast majority of the map is going to look enormous. So let’s flip things round, and ask: what’s the fewest number of US states you need to get to England’s share of the national population?
The 2010 census found that the US population was around 308.7m. The US equivalent of England would have 83.9 per cent of that, so around 259.0m people.
Do the maths, and you’ll find that you can add together the 25 biggest states in the union, and get as far down the population table as little Louisiana (population: 4.5m), and you still don’t quite get there. The minimum number of US states you need to get to 83.9 per cent of the population is 26.
Now think about the political implications of treating those 26 as a block. Add together the 25 biggest states and, say, Idaho, and you’ll find that between them they carry 418 electoral college votes in a presidential election. You only need 270 to become president, so this is a comfortable landslide in anyone’s book. Look instead at the House of Representatives, where the numbers are a bit more proportional, and those 26 states have a total of 366 congressmen. For a majority there, you need just 218.
The point is that, even under the US constitution, which goes out of its way to protect small states’ rights against the dominance of their bigger neighbours, there is no way that these 26 states won’t dominate the union. It’s mathematically impossible.
By now it should be clear that England is really, really big compared to the other UK nations. But, we like hammering things home, so let’s look at Germany instead.
Around the start of 2013, Germany had a population of around 80.5m. To play a role equivalent to the one England plays in the UK, a German state would need a population of around 67.6m.
The largest German state, North Rhine-Westphalia, doesn’t even come close. Its population is just 17.6m, only just over a quarter of the required size. In fact you’d need at least 10 of the 16 German states to get to that magic number (the top nine, plus titchy Mecklenburg- Vorpommern).
Perhaps the multi-state entity most famous for being dominated by a single one of its members was the German Empire, which lasted from 1871 to 1919. At its creation in 1871, its dominant state, Prussia, contained around 25m of its 40m people. That’s around 62 per cent of the total.
In other words, England dominates the UK more – far, far more – than Prussia dominated the German empire.
Oh, and it’s the fastest growing bit of the UK, too, so this problem is going to get worse.
This, I think, might be a partial explanation of how we got into this mess. Our polite instinct is to pretend there’s some sort of parity between the UK nations (or at least, between England and Scotland; the other two don’t qualify for the same treatment, somehow). If we don’t, the smaller nations feel that their interests aren’t adequately represented.
But – and this is the bind we’re in – if we do do that, we end up underplaying the relative importance of England. Not just by a little; by a lot. Either England dominates the union; or the balance of power has to be undemocratic.
This, I’d posit, offers some hint at how the other parts of the UK should have come to feel like they were being crushed under the heel of an over-mighty England, even after powers were devolved. More to the point, it shows why a federal UK of four nation states is never, ever going to work.