Britain once looked down on the tribal divisions of other countries. It held up its own identity as that of a people united not just by language, history, and geography, but by high ideals of civic life.
Thus the name Great Britain, an expression that Francis Bacon saw as the “perfect union of bodies, politics – as well as natural.” And that was back in 1603.
On Wednesday, however, the possible dissolution of Britain may have started. The leader of Scotland’s regional government, Alex Salmond, announced his preference for a referendum in 2014 that would give the 5 million Scots two choices: either full independence or, something slightly less, maximum autonomy.
If Scotland does go it alone, it would go against the tide of history. Britain, like the United States, Brazil, India, Indonesia, and other countries with diverse peoples, has indeed shown that a shared civic life, rooted in a commitment to rights, freedom, and elected government, can be a powerful unifying force.
Those enduring ideals create a social glue. They challenge the ancient notions that a country must be monocultural or that “self-determination” is only for people of like race or ethnicity.
Yes, there are still plenty of recent counter examples, even since the end of the colonial era and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Czechoslovakia and Sudan, for example, each split into two countries. NATO helped Kosovo break from Serbia. Belgium and Italy can barely hang together, as is true of Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, and Libya. Myanmar, or Burma, is in perpetual civil war.
Yet in Europe, the Basques who seek independence from Spain and France have recently given up their militancy. Sri Lanka settled a war between Tamils and Sinhalese. Quebec is still part of Canada. And Britain ended the violence over Northern Ireland (a territory which, when combined with Great Britain’s England, Wales, and Scotland, makes up the United Kingdom).
Scotland has officially been joined with England for 300 years. Even before that, in the early 1600s, King James I tried to unify the two peoples. He was the first Scottish monarch on the English throne.
James appealed to the notion of a shared landscape and sponsored public dramas that depicted the British Isles as “a world divided from the world.” But he bemoaned the “curious wits, various conceits, different actions, and variety of examples” among the British that bred dissension.
Scottish-English tensions have indeed persisted. Nostalgia for the past (think “Braveheart”) lingers. With the British economy now stalled, divisions can easily mount. Any spirit of forgiveness for past abuses or current insults evaporates.
Scots make up just 8 percent of Britain. They fret over the distribution of Britain’s wealth and spending. And since Scotland (along with Wales) gained some local autonomy in 1998, the pro-independence sentiment has strengthened.
A breakup of Britain would set a particularly bad example for the rest of the world. Scots themselves are evenly divided on the prospect. The fact that they would use a democratic process rather than weapons of war to settle the issue shows the progress of history. Perhaps they can extend that progress by saying no on independence.