In a few days time, Scotland will vote on whether to remain part of the United Kingdom. As an Englishman, albeit with a Scottish father, I don't feel very strongly about it but I do find myself unhappy about the prospect of the UK being dismembered bit by bit. A country consisting of England, Wales and N Ireland seems pretty illogical and somehow threadbare. I'd much rather we did it properly and all split up into separate nations, than have this hotch-potch of territories that would exist post-independence.
But there is another more troubling question posed and that is "What is a nation anyway?" I never asked to be English or British, I was just born here and I have to accept my fate whether I like it or not. Even if I emigrate someplace else, I will remain English because I have spent most of my life here. But it's not something I chose. I didn't get a vote about it: it's not something you could realistically vote on.
But when Scotland casts its vote on September 18th, its people will have an almost existential choice to make, the nearest they will ever get to voting on identity. What sort of country do they want to live in? Do they want to be primarily Scottish? Or British? Or even European (though this isn't a question being asked)? And what are these seemingly abstract concepts of statehood anyway?
I've no doubt Scotland would make it as an independent country — there's no reason why it couldn't — but would it be better or worse off? No one has any idea. And is it, in any event, even about being better off, at least in an economic sense? These concepts are so nebulous that I find them quite unsettling.
At the heart of the matter is the fact that the United Kingdom is and always has been a mini-empire. Unlike the USA (or even Europe, bless it), it has never been a collection of equals. Rather it's been one big bully (England pop 60m) and three little Celtic statelets (combined pop just 10m). England and in particular London has been imposing its will on the UK ever since the UK existed and in some ways it's a wonder that is has survived so long in the format it has now. The Irish forced their way out nearly a hundred years ago. Why has it taken the Scots so long to do the same? And why are the Welsh so mealy-mouthed about independence as well? I bet if Scotland goes, Wales will follow them within ten years. Where that would leave N Ireland? In a mess. But then it's been in a mess for a long time. The Protestants would have to eat humble pie and troop off to Dublin, hopefully not literally, for political representation. Ouch.
What's interesting is to hear David Cameron speaking up for the current union using classic Tory mercantilist rhetoric. The arguments he makes could equally well be used to keep the UK in the EU: easier trading, access to bigger markets, common currency (well we could have had it if we had wished for it). But whilst England doesn't like the thought of losing some of its muscle by waving goodbye to little Scotland, it's much less keen on sharing what it has with states like France and Germany who have similar power and status. I sense playground politics at work here: there is something quite primeval about it all.
I'm beginning to sound like a rabid pro-independence campaigner here, but the reality is rather different. The problem is that in a perfect world we would probably all be both independent and conjoined at a national and international level. But we are not in a perfect world and having independence votes like these unleashes the dark powers of nationalism and resentment. Just by asking the question, we are letting that nasty little genie out of the bag. Whatever the outcome, the political landscape has already moved just a little further away from tolerance and interdependence, towards narrow parochialism and mistrust. Not things we need in the 21st century.
And if Scotland votes for independence, doesn't it call into question the legitimacy of many other so-called nations? Will it herald a century of territorial Balkanisation around the world? Do we need it? Aren't there enough global problems without everyone using up energy trying to determine which country they want to live in? I fear it's a small step from genteel Edinburgh to violent Donetsk.