A Dis-United Kingdom?
Scots get self-rule; the Welsh may, too. N. Ireland talks open today. England may be alone.
LONDON — From his architect's office in north London, Christopher Dickerson is planning for the breakup of the United Kingdom.
As secretary of the English National Party, he is convinced that "a few years from now, we in England will go it alone."
His is not a solitary voice.
Members of Britain's main political parties have begun talking about the until-now unthinkable: each of the United Kingdom's component parts going its own way.
Mr. Dickerson spoke after last Thursday's "yes" by 74 percent of Scottish voters to setting up a local parliament in Edinburgh in 2000. Sixty-three percent also supported giving that body limited tax-raising powers.
This Thursday, voters will cast ballots in Wales on establishing a legislature there.
And talks reopen today on Northern Ireland. For the first time, Sinn Fein, a party that is calling for total independence of the province from Britain, will be at the table.
"I foresee a time, perhaps not far distant, when there will be an English parliament representing England, with the other parts of the present UK - Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland - having parliaments and governments of their own," Dickerson says.
Alan Cochrane, a Scottish political analyst, says, "English public opinion is finally awake. There is a groundswell, with people asking, 'If Scotland can have its own parliament, why not England?' "
In fact, there already is a parliament in London, but it is British, not English. Despite a tendency to equate Britain with England, they are sharply different. "The English," Dickerson points out, "live in England. The Scots, Welsh, and Northern Irish are distinct peoples and, together with the English, send representatives to the British capital to sit in the UK Parliament."
Dickerson concedes that his party is "in a formative stage, with only a small number" of active members. "It was brought into existence by the Labour government's decision to offer a separate parliament to Scotland - and it is beginning to grow," he says.
Historically, the United Kingdom is a gluing together of several nations (see map).
The UK flag - the red, white, and blue Union Jack - is itself a composite, with the crosses of St. George (England), St. Andrew (Scotland), and St. Patrick (Ireland) laid on top of one another.
During the referendum campaign in Scotland, the blue cross of St. Andrew was much in evidence. Those like Dickerson who want a separate parliament for England and say the Scottish vote is fostering such a demand, would like to see the red cross of St. George fluttering from every English flagstaff.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair may secretly share much the same sentiment.
Last Friday, he said he was "delighted" that Scots had opted for a legislature of their own with power to raise taxes. He told cheering crowds in Edinburgh, the Scottish capital, "This is a good day for Scotland, a good day for Britain, and a good day for the United Kingdom."
Heading for Wales, he said a "yes" vote for a separate assembly there would "bring government closer to the people."
Both referendums provide for limited self-rule, which the Labour government hopes will satisfy those who have been frustrated with rule from London. Scotland and Wales will continue to be represented in the British Parliament.
Bridging a perceived gulf between people and government is a central part of the new Labour government's driving philosophy.
Mr. Blair already has promised Londoners a referendum next year on whether they should have an assembly and directly elected mayor of their own.
MEANWHILE, politicians of varying stripes have begun talking openly about the need to overhaul the UK's centralized government.
Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish National Party, says independence for Scotland is "an imperative" and continues vigorously to campaign for it.
More surprisingly, over the weekend Andrew Hunter, a senior Conservative member of Parliament and a constitutional expert, joined Bernie Grant, a Labour member, in calling for an English parliament that would match the one in Edinburgh.
"It is the logical conclusion to what Tony Blair has done," Mr. Hunter says.
Adds Ann Widdecombe, a minister in the former Conservative government: "The problem is theoretical at present, but when the Scottish parliament gets going, the issue will assume increasing importance."
It's uncertain whether Wales will follow Scotland in demanding its own assembly. In a home-rule referendum 18 years ago, Welsh voters were 4 to 1 against.
But since then, a Welsh independence party, Plaid Cymru, has gained strength, and the Labour government in London is campaigning hard for a yes vote.
Like their Scottish cousins, many Welsh are convinced that they get a raw deal from Parliament and would be better off looking after their own interests.
That is not the view of William Hague, leader of Britain's Conservative Party. Last week he warned that separate legislatures in Scotland and Wales "could lead to the breakup of the UK."
There are, in fact, signs of unrest in other parts of Britain.
Last May, thousands of people from Cornwall, a county in southwest England, marched 320 miles London to demonstrate their "difference" from the rest of the country and to complain about what their leader called the "oppression" of English "overlords."
This weekend, people on Orkney, a small island off the coast of Scotland, were urged by the leader of their council to demand a referendum to decide which powers should be devolved from Edinburgh to Kirkwall, the island capital.
For Dickerson, such restlessness evokes "no surprise." He has a plan to respond to the dissolution of the UK.
When it does dissolve, he says, there would be a need for a "council of the British Isles," made up of representatives of its constituent parts to "discuss the things we still have in common."