In the past quarter century, more than two dozen countries have split up or been created, either through trauma or in triumph. Yet in a crystal-clear vote Thursday against independence from the United Kingdom, Scotland has set a new standard for secession causes, one that is ringing far beyond the UK.
In settling the question of a split up in a consensual way through a referendum, the UK is now even more united in an important aspect. It is ready to redefine Britishness, notably through a further granting of powers to local communities. This peaceful devolution will be a powerful evolution in humanity’s long quest to define those ties that bind people across nationalism, creed, race, politics, language, or culture.
As the poet laureate of Edinburgh, Christine De Luca, wrote in a verse before the Scottish vote:
It’s those unseen things that bind us, not flag or battle-weary turf or tartan.
There are dragons to slay whatever happens: poverty, false pride, snobbery, sectarian schisms still hovering.
But there’s nothing broken that’s not repairable.
For UK politicians, much work still remains on how much clout to grant local elected bodies in Scotland, England, Northern Ireland, and Wales, especially on matters of taxes, spending, and welfare. The English, who have long dominated the UK, may now gain more local powers themselves while also needing to give up some of their national clout.
Societies often readjust their contours, often searching for a higher view of what motivates people to care for each other. With new technologies, such as cellphones or the Internet, humans today believe they can be more self-reliant. Yet they still search for a shared ethical life, either through human reason or, for many, with a divine spark. Is such common life to be found in the digital realm, geographic proximity, or some other imagined community?
From Tibet in China to Catalonia in Spain, the many places in the world that are agitating for independence may now draw lessons from the Scottish vote, not least for its peaceful, democratic path to a decision. The Scots have renewed their bonds with the rest of the UK, an act of affection that elevates a shared identity for Britons. It may just be the case that a people who are too busy doing good for each other can more easily overlook their differences.