It is highly unlikely David Cameron wants to go down in history as the answer to the pub quiz question: “Who was the last prime minister of the United Kingdom?”
But it now seems certain that a referendum will be held on Scottish independence in the lifetime of this parliament. Polls show a majority don’t plan to vote Yes but if Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond pitches the debate as a battle between meddling Westminster unionists and a proud party of government in Scotland he could pull off the coup of his career.
Scotland’s exit would mean a new nation state of England and Wales (plus Northern Ireland) would be born. The Scots would not be the only people to wake up in a brand new political reality.
A sense of precarious fragility and imminent change haunts Western states. American pundits compare their creaking superpower to the Ottoman empire which is now more famous for the speed at which it vanished than its erstwhile splendour.
A favourite Christmas book among politicos was Norman Davies’ Vanished Kingdoms, which recounts how many of Europe’s greatest countries disappeared from the map.
He describes how the Rzeczpospolita of Poland-Lithuania was once the “the largest state in Europe” but “in little more than two decades at the end of the eighteenth century, [it] was destroyed so comprehensively that few people today have even heard of it.”
He also mentions the extinguishing of the Republic of Venice, the Holy Roman Empire and the Soviet Union.
Utopian ambition was once focused on the European Union. Contrast the pessimism in this season of crisis summits with the way US conservative guru Samuel Huntington described the prospects for integration back in 1988: “The European Community, if it were to become politically cohesive, would have the population, resources, economic wealth, technology and actual and potential military strength to be the preeminent power of the 21st century.
“Japan, the United States and the Soviet Union have specialised respectively in investment, consumption and arms. Europe balances all three.” In British politics, at least, the concept of such a superstate has failed to inspire.
Despite the battering of the recession, Western states remain lands where citizens enjoy unprecedented access to advanced healthcare, education and technology. But debates are dogged by a sense past achievements are unsustainable.
The language of hope and idealism is common in nationalist politics – something former Welsh Secretary John Redwood senses is stirring among English Tories – but the prime minister must kindle an excitement about a future UK if this fragile alliance is to survive.
A Thursday Column.
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