The London-Edingburg confrontation around the Scotland’s independence referendum date exacerbates
Is the United Kingdom, one of the oldest and most stable countries in Europe, about to disintegrate? Suddenly the spectre of Scottish independence has appeared, terrifying politicians in Westminister. Scotland's devolved government is run by Alex Salmond, a Scottish Nationalist who is determined to win full independence from London. Now David Cameron, the UK Prime Minister, has challenged him: "Do you, or do you not, want to separate from the United Kingdom? If you do, call a referendum as soon as possible and let's have a clear decision."
The challenge has immediately raised the temperature. Mr Salmond has suddenly been thrown on the defensive. All the polls show that, although he is a canny and very popular "first minister" of Scotland's government, most Scots do not want full independence. They are worried about the cost, and fear that it would not be a simple divorce. Mr Salmond has therefore been going slowly - promising Scottish voters independence "but not just yet". What he has been trying to do is force more and more concessions from London, and then hold a referendum in two years which would include a third question - "maximum devolution". This would give Scotland independence in name, but would keep all the benefits of the wider union, as well as saving Edinbugh a lot of expenditure.
Mr Cameron has now called his bluff. None of the main Westminister parties - Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat - favour Scottish independence. But "devo-max", as the third option is called, is the worst option for the rest of the country. It would mean that London would still have to pay for Scotland's defence and foreign affairs, as well as guaranteeing the use of England's pound currency in Scotland and shouldering all the national debt. Scotland would have all the power of a separate government but none of the responsibility.
So Cameron has now challenged Salmond - "In or out?" He has also made it clear that when Scotland and England were formally united in 1707, the treaty was signed and approved by both countries. Salmond wants to hold a referendum only in Scotland - and allow Scots aged 16 and 17 to vote also, knowing that they might support him. But unless a Scottish vote for independence was approved also by the Parliament in London, it would not be legally binding on all the country. It takes two to sign a treaty, so it must take two to dissolve a treaty, Cameron insists.
The big question over Scotland is whether Britain is facing a situation like Quebec, Ukraine or Slovakia. The first example is of a part of Canada that for years demanded independence, but never actually held a binding vote. Quebec has achieved virtual self-government, but has kept many of the benefits of remaining part of Canada.
The second example, Ukraine, is of a republic that split from the Soviet Union suddenly when the union collapsed, and achieved immediate independence. But the other side, Russia, has never fully accepted this, tensions between the two states have not been resolved and Ukraine has not found it easy to form a new relationship with its former masters.
The third example, Slovakia, is of a "velvet divorce" that caused little disturbance to either state. The question arose suddenly, and was quickly settled, with each side accepting the result. In truth, however, most Czechs did not want to continue in a single state with the poorer Slovaks - and the Slovaks resented the general attitude in the Czech Republic of "We don't care if you want to go your own way."
The attitude in much of England is like the third option. Scottish nationalism has begun to create a corresponding English nationalism. This resents the huge subsidies that English taxpayers now pay to Scotland to keep their standards of living high. English people are angered by the general Scottish refusal to cheer for England during international football games. And the attitude of many is "Goodbye. Good riddance".
Emotions are running high. Any Scottish separation would raise very difficult economic and political questions, that could not be settled by a single referendum vote. For example: would an independent Scotland have enough money from North Sea oil and other exports to maintain its standard of living? Would the new country be defended by the British Army? Would Scots be able to travel to England without having to show passports at the new border? What about the rights of the thousands of Scots who now live permanently in England? Would the Queen remain the head of state in Scotland, even if it was an independent country? Would the Scots be allowed to receive BBC programmes or would they have to pay a special tax to England to pay for their share of the broadcasts? And if Scotland became independent, would it join the European Union and adopt the euro as its currency? How would any joint tax system work? And, most difficult of all, how much of Britain's national debt should be transferred to Edinburgh?
A break-up of the union would also have big consequences for Wales, with only 3 million people, and Northern Ireland with only 1.8 million. Each would feel totally dominated by England, with 51.8 million people. They are too small for independence on their own. What would their new relationship with England be?
Salmond would like to see Cameron lead the opposition to independence, as he could then portray this as bullying by an upper-class English "colonialist" politician. But Cameron is too shrewd to fall into this trap. Any opposition to Salmond would be led by a pro-Union Scot, probably Alastair Darling, who was a popular and effective Chancellor of the Exchequer (finance minister) in the last Labour government in London. The Conservatives would make an alliance with all the other parties to fight Salmond, but would not lead the opposition to a "yes" vote from London.
Salmond knows that if a referendum is held and lost, he will not have a second chance to push for independence. That is why he wants to postpone a vote until 2014. And that is why Cameron is pushing for a decisive, binding vote this year. Behind the scenes, there are talks between the two sides on how to proceed. But on the surface there is now open warfare between London and Edinbugh. And both sides are now remembering old battles, including the famous Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, when Scotland inflicted a heavy defeat on the English king's army. Salmond is hoping to do the same politically on the 700th anniversary of this battle - best known as the one when "Braveheart" led the Scots. Cameron and other politicians in London are already drawing up their strategies to ensure the political defeat of England's northern neighbour and ancient historic enemy.