2007 - 2021

Is the UK ‘the most successful political union in history’?


One of the signs of a changing constitutional politics in Scotland is a change of slogans and their claims. For many years, the description of the Union as a ‘partnership of equals’ was perhaps the most popular such slogan. It was used by unionists and nationalists alike, and gained mantra-like status in the process. The, at least de facto, falseness of its claim, however, has been increasingly exposed beyond repair: most explicitly in its unequivocal rejection by the British government in the independence referendum campaign. In part as a substitute, another slogan has come to some prominence in the referendum campaign as an argument against Scottish independence, and its exclusively unionist nature perhaps reflects the polarisation of the constitutional debate. This is that the UK is ‘the most successful political union in history’.


Whether its claim is true or not, it must be said that past success is not in itself a reason for Scotland retaining the Union. The more pertinent issue is whether the Union is likely to be the best vehicle for success in the future, and for Scottish success in particular. Nonetheless, the claim is now a central tenet of the No campaign so it is worth addressing on that basis.

Those who use this newer slogan, and thus make its claim, don’t usually tell us what their measures of success are, far less how they apply in practice. In a Google internet search by this writer – looking at the first eight random instances of the use of the slogan by politicians, journalists and other commentators – no such measures were even mentioned by its users. Each time, the claim was made without any qualification.

Nevertheless, there are measures that can reasonably be accepted to be used to assess the success of political unions. Their political success can be measured in terms of size, by area, population and membership, as well as their longevity, territorial integrity and cohesion. A successful political union not only lasts, but retains its constituent parts, and is prone to adding territory rather than losing it. It lacks significant secessionist movements, and has a cohesive identity. Economic success can be measured by GDP: both total and per capita. The cultural success of political unions is a more nebulous thing to measure but we can do so to some extent with such statistics as the world ranking of their universities, their number of Nobel Prize laureates and, in sport, by their Olympic Games medal tally.

Given that the claim is that the UK is the most successful political union in history, the number of other unions to measure the UK against is considerable. For the claim to not be true, however, we need only establish one other political union to be more successful (that is not to say there are no others, of course). Step forward the United States of America. Let us measure, and compare, the success of the UK and the US as political unions.

In terms of size, the UK is 243.6 thousand km2 in area and the US 9.8 million km2. The population of the UK was 63.2 million in its 2011 census while that of the US was 308.7 million in its 2010 census. The UK has four constituent members whereas the US comprises 50 states.

From their founding, the UK has had a net growth in area of 13,800 km2, the US a growth of 8.7 million km2; the UK a net growth in population of 57.2 million, the US a growth of 306.5 million; and the UK has added one constituent member, Ireland, most of which subsequently seceded to become the Republic of Ireland, while the US has added 37 states to its original 13.

The United Kingdom has lasted 307 years, the United States 238 years. However, the UK only existed at its fullest extent for the 121 years from 1801 to 1922, from when Ireland joined till most of it left, whereas the US has only expanded.

Three of the four constituent parts of the UK have significant secessionist movements that have played a prominent, if not dominant, part in the politics of each for decades. The Republic of Ireland has never sought to rejoin the UK. The US has never lost a state or territory and has no significant secessionist movement in any of its 50 states. Puerto Rico voted in favour of becoming a US state in a 2012 referendum.

Closely allied to the territorial integrity of a political union is the cohesiveness of its shared identity. In 2011, the censuses carried out across the UK asked, for the first time, for people to self-identify their national identity. Every constituent part of the UK recorded a majority of the population who did not include being British as part of their national identity. This is particularly significant in that the British establishment, in its various guises, identifies and promotes the UK as a single British nation. By comparison, the United States census does not ask people to self- identify other than by race and ancestry, reflecting an American national identity so pervasive, and thus cohesive, that measuring it is not considered necessary.

The total GDP (PPP) of the UK in 2013 was estimated at $2.378 trillion, that of the US at $16.724 trillion – making it the world’s largest. The per capita GDP of the UK in 2013 was estimated at $38,309 (21st highest), that of the US at $52,839 (9th highest).

In the 2013 Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), Cambridge and Oxford universities ranked 5th and 10th respectively, while the American universities Harvard, Stanford, UC Berkeley and MIT, ranked 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th respectively. In fact 17 of the top 20 universities were US based. This was no blip, e.g. Harvard consistently comes first, and Stanford second, in ARWU rankings.

The UK has had 115 Nobel laureates, the US 350.

In the Olympic Games, the UK has won 802 medals including 245 gold, the US has won 2,293 medals including 1,061 gold. The US has won more Olympic Games medals overall, including more gold, than any other country.

The US is clearly a more successful political union than the UK, and that is without taking into account other aspects of its success such as its space programme, its Hollywood-centred film industry, its contemporary responsibility for English being a global lingua franca, and her largest city, New York, as the home of the headquarters of the United Nations, being the nearest thing there has ever been to a world capital.

Even without considering any other political unions, the slogan with its claim that the UK is the ‘most successful political union in history’ is therefore false. Which is perhaps why, when the slogan is used, there is no substantiation offered for the claim it makes. It is hyperbole of the same order as the ‘partnership of equals’ slogan that it has largely replaced.

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  1. Alex Buchan says:

    That map is shocking, really shocking, and in it’s value as evidence in favour of the yes vote is immense. The claim that the UK is the most successful union is more a psychological ploy than a rational argument. It is designed to play into the narrative of the uniqueness of Britain. On every level this can be disproved, including the idea that Britain gave the world democracy as many countries had strong parliaments in the medieval period and Britain did not lead the way in widening the franchise. It informs, and is part of a moral superiority attitude, exemplified in last night’s moral maze on BBC radio 4, where the program concluded with the position that most nationalisms are suspect but the British state is unique because it embraces various nations and all minority groups. The British/English middle classes regards Scottish nationalism, not as a valid political position, but as morally questionable, this is already evident in the way the BBC interview those supporting independence, but it will become even more pronounced as the campaign progresses.

  2. Dan Huil says:

    We should also never forget that unionist “success” was built economically on the backs of millions of innocent people around the world. The British empire was like any other empire: created with chains.

  3. David Agnew says:

    well if the unionists are correct, then Scotland has no stake in the Union. Its never contributed anything of value to the Union. Its cultural identity and its history have contributed nothing to the UK. Britishness is defined as nothing more than a giro cheque that Scotland gets to cash in every Tuesday. A non people who have been a burden on the English for the past 300 yrs. I am awaiting a new TV programme called Benefit Nation were it focuses on Scotland & how it wastes all that lovely English money.

    Successful union? If the plan was to capture Scotland and keep it close, so they could give us lots of English money – then stand up and take a bow. It that statement was Bollocks – then the union is a total failure that has no reason to look so smug.

  4. K Mackay says:

    I can’t see the picture, anyone else having this problem? I am using a pretty old laptop, might just be me

    1. Can’t see it either, but I’m sure normal service will be resumed shortly

      1. bellacaledonia says:

        You can’t see the map?

      2. Tina Feedgie says:

        I was also unable to see the map using Google Chrome. However, using Internet Explorer it showed up fine.

  5. hektorsmum says:

    On Firefox and I cannot see the map either.

  6. BillfaeDenny says:

    Using Opera . I can’t see any map.

  7. Cognitive dissonant says:

    Oh, oh, no map on Chrome.
    No graphic to gladden my heart..

    [STOP] 🙂

  8. Alex Buchan says:

    For those who haven’t been able to see the map it can be seen at the following webpage on poverty.org.


    It shows how Scotland, uniquely, out of all the four constituent nations of the United Kingdom, has the worst statistics for premature deaths, not just in urban areas but also in rural areas. What the map does is help to sharpen an aspect of the independence debate which is the divide between those who see this as the result of the neglect of Scotland under the union and those who use health statistics to argue that Scotland, uniquely of all European nations, is congenitally incapable of thriving. The map is powerful because it’s so obvious looking at the map that something is very, very, wrong in the way that the UK is structured that one part of it can do so badly in comparison to the rest.

  9. Archie Flockhart says:

    Of course, as someone said elsewhere on this site, maps have the ability to frame or distort a debate. And this one is particularly misleading – many of the minuscule red dots in England and Wales represent more people than the enormous solid red mass that represents the Highland council area. That small red cluster around Manchester and Liverpool, and the one in London, probably each represent more population than the red bit of Scotland.

    And that’s without going into the detail of the statistics that underly it – why was the map coloured using the “top sixth” of anything, rather than the more usual deciles or quartiles ? Maybe ( we can’t tell without the data) the big impressive-looking red areas disappear if we look at the top 10%, and too many English rural areas start to appear on the map if you look at quartiles.

    As for the article itself, which bears no relation to the map, it seems to be an argument in favour of larger political entities being more successful than smaller ones, which is an interesting point of view if you are trying to argue for setting up a smaller political entity.

    1. bellacaledonia says:

      I think a map that shows acute inequality speaks directly to the question: ‘Is the UK ‘the most successful political union in history’? but if you need it spelled out …

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