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.