Mary Dejevsky: Breaking up should not be so hard to do

Separation is eminently feasible, where a strong sense of nationhood and accepted borders exist

Share

Christmas always seems that most English of festivals – from the cathedrals, to the music, to the food, to the commercialism, to the landscapes. Across the Channel, the feast has preserved more of its religious flavour; they go back to work sooner; there is less panicked preparation. And Scotland? Scotland has Hogmanay. This is the season when our differences are most visible and most keenly felt.

That may be one reason why, of all the points mentioned by Sir Gus O'Donnell in an interview to mark his retirement as head of the Civil Service, it was his apparent insouciance about the possible break-up of the United Kingdom that drew most attention. "Over the next few years," he said, "there will be enormous challenges, such as whether to keep our kingdom united..."

The timescale alone – "the next few years" – was striking. Scotland's First Minister, Alex Salmond, is committed to holding a referendum on independence in the second half of his government's term, which places it somewhere in the next three years. But the response of all three major British parties so far has been simply to reaffirm their support for the Union, while – it seems – secretly hoping nothing will happen.

And maybe nothing will. Maybe the referendum will not take place for whatever reason; or maybe, if it does, a majority of Scottish voters will vote No. Or maybe they will prefer the lesser variant that could be on offer: a separation of the economies, while the Union is retained. But do not rely on that. When someone such as Sir Gus, whose 30-plus years ascending the ladder of the Civil Service have bred circumspection of an extreme kind, hints at a possible break-up of the UK, it is time to sit up and take stock of the evidence.

Devolution has a logical conclusion, and that is separation. If the policy, initiated by Tony Blair early in his first term, was intended to draw the sting of resurgent nationalism, it seems rather to have had the opposite effect. Scotland and, latterly, Wales have gained a taste for difference that may not, at least in Scotland's case, be satisfied by remaining inside the UK.

How little the powers-that-be comprehend the demons they themselves have unleashed can be judged by the shocked surprise with which they greeted the SNP's electoral success this year. It seems almost not to have occurred to them that the Nationalists might improve on their past performance and gain an absolute majority at Holyrood. But that is what happened. Their victory was then explained away as a reward for their perceived competence in coalition – which was partly true, but also permitted the consoling thought that Scotland's sense of thwarted nationhood was not a force to be reckoned with.

I have long believed in the possibility of an independent Scotland as the likely end result of devolution, but admit to a wobble after the Royal Bank of Scotland failed. Surely, fears of national bankruptcy could send Scots scuttling back into the comforting bosom of the mother country? But, no. The good ship SNP sailed confidently on. And, while one reason might be the naïve faith that England would always have an interest in offering a neighbourly bailout whatever Scotland's status, another is that economics is only a part, and not necessarily the major part, of Scotland's desire for independence. The quest for full sovereignty, and a truly Scottish state, was always greater.

This is one reason for my conviction that Scottish independence will come – a conviction only reinforced by the alacrity with which Scots have embraced their devolved status and demanded more. Over the past 15 years, Scotland has become ever more distinct from the rest of Great Britain. On all sorts of policies, from health through welfare, schools, and university fees, it is spinning off at a remarkable speed in pursuit of something that looks more akin to the so-called Nordic model. It has also pioneered measures – such as the smoking ban in public places and now a minimum price for alcohol – that have stolen a march on the rest of Britain. How far its tax base would allow the continuation of such policies after independence is another matter, but that would be for Scots to decide.

The latest sign of changed times was Alex Salmond's abrasively negative response to David Cameron's refusal to participate in the latest EU moves to save the euro. His criticism, in a letter to the Prime Minister, brought accusations from Scottish Tories that he was a "Euro-fanatic" or worse. The reality is, though, that the UK's membership of the European Union is something that has made devolution, and even independence for Scotland, less risky, and that it would make sense for an independent Scotland to join the euro.

The other reason why I believe Scottish independence is quite possible, and even desirable, is the number of recent precedents for peaceful break-up in Europe that have left all parties satisfied. As Vaclav Havel is laid to rest today at a state funeral in Prague, the "velvet divorce" between the Czech Republic and Slovakia comes to mind. But the generally peaceful dissolution of the Soviet Union, which saw its constituent republics gain or regain their independence – or, in some cases, have an ill-prepared independence thrust upon them – also shows that separation is eminently feasible, especially where a strong sense of national identity and an accepted border already exists. The civil war in Yugoslavia is not the only model.

This past autumn has seen a succession of celebrations as nation after nation has exulted in 20 years of independence. Perhaps the greatest beneficiary of the Soviet Union's collapse, however, was the one country that is gearing up to pass its own anniversary, on the Western calendar's Christmas Day, in embarrassed silence. This is Russia, whose current generation of leaders regards the Soviet demise as – in Vladimir Putin's words – "one of the greatest geopolitical catastrophes of the 20th century".

Future generations, however, may well come to hail it, instead, for opening the way to the resurrection of Russia. The bitter five-year rivalry between Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin was as personal as it was political. But it also represented a proxy war between the Soviet Union and Russia, as smaller nations rose up to determine their own future, and Russians – alone of the 15 republics in lacking their own party, parliament or government – vented their resentment about the money squandered on ungrateful clients.

This is something for us, the English, to ponder. In many ways, our situation is akin to that of Russians in the old Soviet Union – the dominant state with no instruments of representation or government to call our own. Independence for the Scots would end that. Their independence would also be ours.

m.dejevsky@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Year 5 Teacher

£80 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Year 5 Teacher KS2 teaching job...

Software Developer

£35000 - £45000 Per Annum Pensions Scheme After 6 Months: Clearwater People So...

Systems Analyst / Business Analyst - Central London

£35000 - £37000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Analyst / Busines...

Senior Change Engineer (Network, Cisco, Juniper) £30k

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Senior Change ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: A huge step forward in medical science, but we're not all the way there yet

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
David Cameron has painted a scary picture of what life would be like under a Labour government  

You want constitutional change? Fixed-term parliaments have already done the job

Steve Richards
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Salisbury ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities

The city is home to one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, along with the world’s oldest mechanical clock
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album