Greece is in desperate trouble, but at least its survival as a nation is assured. In contrast, the UK might very well cease to exist within the next decade or so. In its place, England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland could emerge as completely independent nations.
To what do we owe this happy prospect? Simply this: Britain is the most schizophrenic nation on earth.
Just look at the upcoming programme. First, the British will vote in a referendum to decide whether they are European. Shortly afterwards, the Scots will demand another referendum on whether they are British. Meanwhile, the English will busily discuss what the difference is between being English and British. And pity those in Cornwall, an English county, who want to remain Cornish, British and European – but not English.
Dig a little deeper and it actually gets worse. Many Londoners fancy their city so cosmopolitan that it has little in common with the rest of England. There should therefore be not four but five separate countries within the UK: Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, London and what’s left of England.
Meanwhile, half of Northern Ireland is keen to leave the UK altogether and join up with the Republic of Ireland, while the other half finds that idea appalling. Then there are the Welsh. They can’t stand the English, and the English don’t like them much either. But geography and economics lump the two together in a loveless marriage.
It’s no wonder many British people are so confused that they don’t know what to call their own country. Say you live in England. Is your country England, Great Britain or the United Kingdom? They all have a different meaning. (Northern Ireland, for instance, is part of the UK, but not of Great Britain. But many of its people consider themselves British.) Oh, and then there’s the British Isles, which includes the UK, of course, but also the Republic of Ireland, which is a completely separate nation, and miscellaneous small islands.
Foreigners must therefore tread carefully. They needn’t worry about the English, whose ambivalence to such things is legendary. But call a Scotsman English and you’re likely to get a torrent of abuse. In fact, nowadays you have to be careful about calling a Scotsman British. Stick to Scottish.
The root cause of this British diplomatic minefield, with countless raw nerves protruding, is a kind of confused hysteria about our identity. Unable to decide who we are, we argue incessantly.
But the trend is clear: opinion polls show that English, Scottish and Welsh people increasingly see their nations as England, Scotland and Wales. Not Britain. So Britain (or the UK if you include Northern Ireland) is not a nation in its own right but a union of nations bound together for geographical and economic convenience.
Actually, it’s rather like the European Union, of which, as we speak, Britain remains a part. So Britain is a small union within a big union. Strangely, Scottish nationalists campaigning for independence from the small union are equally passionate about remaining a part of the big union. (It’s okay, it seems, for your laws to be made in Brussels but not in dreaded London).
At this rate, with Welsh nationalism on the rise too, the English will be abandoned. But that suits them. Believe it or not, there is growing support for English independence from Britain. About a third of English people support this notion, which is incredible when you consider that most of them don’t even know it’s possible.
If England is serious about independence, though, it had better get on with it. Some of its constituent parts, not just London and Cornwall, are floating the idea of creating something akin to mini nation states, such is the desire for greater local autonomy and the frustration with “the Westminster elite”. So England is in danger of tearing itself apart before its own independence movement gets off the ground.
However, while the situation looks hopeless, a solution is slowly emerging to satisfy voter demand. Power is increasingly being devolved from Britain to its separate nations. The Scottish Parliament leads the way, with the Welsh and Northern Irish assemblies not far behind. Eventually, that has to mean an English parliament too, housed well away from tainted London. There will then come a point when those four nations will decide how much of their sovereignty they still want to pool in a far looser British union. If any.
Hence the serious possibility of Britain ceasing to exist. If you’re Welsh, your nation could well become Wales, sitting comfortably within the EU. Does anyone lose by such an arrangement? Only those who still consider themselves British. Like the Queen, for example, and the Prime Minister. But their views count for little.
The rest of us will finally be able to discard this awkward arranged marriage with our neighbours, and the pretence of being “Great” (who are we kidding?). Instead, we’ll plough our own furrows – free, single and rejuvenated.
For a country as schizophrenic as ours, nothing would be a more perfect tonic.
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