For an Indian who has always believed that the partition of India was a deep, self-inflicted wound carved by a British knife, the thought that Britain might split into two nations on 18 September is not without some satisfaction. History is rarely synonymous with justice, but when the echo of some form of retribution fills the air, we might sit back and enjoy the music.
On 18 September Scotland will vote on whether to continue the three-century-old union with England. Where on earth did this referendum emerge from? A smug region of collective psychology called Never-Never-Land. The British cross-party establishment was happy to concede a referendum to Scottish nationalists because it was totally convinced that Scots would reject separation. The possibility seemed too bizarre in a city like London, where the colourful frolics of its mayor, Boris Johnson, were always far more interesting than conversation in the pubs of Glasgow. Till a week ago, the Prime Minister of Britain, David Cameron was not even bothered enough to campaign seriously. A conservative magazine like Spectator [once edited by Johnson], published views in mid-August from respected columnists saying “Only a ‘Sod off Scotland’ letter signed by English celebrities can now persuade Scottish waverers to vote ‘Yes’ [to independent Scotland]”. More jovial Englishmen noted, haw haw haw, that you couldn’t be a real country until you had your own beer and your own airline. The Scots like Scotch; and, being great believers in fiscal prudence, understood long before that one-man nation called Vijay Mallya discovered to his eternal horror that an airline is a flight towards doom.
And then suddenly an opinion poll last weekend jolted England with news that Scottish nationalists, who had been trailing by 20 percentage points a month before, were in the lead for the first time and undecided voters were flocking in its direction by a two-to-one margin. London has probably never been so startled since Lord Cornwallis returned from the American colonies with news that some upstart called George Washington had won the war. A pithy argument became the great persuader: Scotland was not leaving England, it was joining the world.
There is no certainty that a majority of Scots will vote for separation on the 18th. But we can be sure about one thing: the margin will be narrow, and Great Britain, if it survives, will become a geographical rather than a political union. The arguments for unity have become, essentially, municipal in nature; whether urban drains and rural pastures will be slightly better managed. Scotland has always had its own football team. The fact that it has never been as good as the English team, or that a Great British side might have outperformed both, has never persuaded the Scots to abandon their right to a popular sports identity. Football represents ancestry that cannot be extinguished by modern power arrangements. Irrespective of the actual vote, this referendum may have revived a spirit that is not purchasable through a currency called the pound.
The pro-Britain lobby might be heartbroken if it fails, but it could yet discover that victory, if it comes, has been purchased at a price that Britain will not be long able to bear. Enough Scots are now convinced that they can create a society of five million people that will be culturally secure, and economically caring. At the very least, London will have to ensure that both are possible in a united kingdom.
Who will pick up the tab for such a Scotland? The English, since they insisted on keeping Scotland under a single flag.
What odds then, that on 18 September 2024, Britain will hold a referendum in England for English independence? Don’t dismiss the thought. More amazing things have happened in the weave and waft of nations. The marriage between England and Scotland is over. If divorce proceedings fail, then it is only because one partner is offering economic terms that are unsustainable in the long, or perhaps even the medium, run. Moreover, every divorce includes some sort of mess that you would rather not face.
Once upon a time this marriage worked because England and Scotland together had children both cared about, and, more pertinently, both benefited hugely from. They were called the colonies. India was the jewel child of the family. But that child has grown up, and gone its own way along with siblings. The children used to visit for a while; now they don’t bother. Indians now prefer to visit an uncle called Sam, rather than a mummy called Elizabeth. The parents remain prosperous enough, but they do not have much to do with each other.
Scotland, less burdened by sentiment, has been realistic enough to signal time-out, and then pushed for separation. England is dangling a new honeymoon, while threatening that there will never be any alimony.
We shall see what happens, but the relationship is fundamentally dead. If they don’t bury it now, they will a little later.