Until recently, few people took seriously the possibility that Scotland might actually secede from the United Kingdom. However, with a referendum scheduled for September 18, the latest polls show secession in the lead for the first time, and gaining dramatic momentum.
The British government is frantically scrambling to offer the Scots a much more autonomous form of federalism, to head off the drive for full independence. Meanwhile, the specter of a diminished Britain has led to speculative attack against the British pound.
What's going on here?
For one thing, with the European Union allowing membership for lots of micro-states, the idea of splitting up established countries with minority regions becomes economically plausible. An independent Scotland, population 5.3 million, would be a bigger country than nine EU members -- Ireland, Lithuania, Croatia, Slovenia, Latvia, Estonia, Cyprus, Luxembourg and Malta; the latter three have less than a million souls each.
(Right-wing economists have been saying for decades that the state is an anachronism in a global economy. Well, that seems a bonnie idea to the Scots!)
There's also a growing political clash. Scots may be thrifty, but they also tend to be somewhat collectivist. A lot of Scots, fed up with Tory policies imposed from London, imagine becoming an independent, Scandinavian sort of social democracy.
They have chafed under rule from London for centuries, but particularly resent what's happened to Britain since Mrs. Thatcher's government. And with a lot of North Sea oil, not to mention single malt Scotch, they are richer than their English cousins. Who needs England?
A form of home rule introduced under the Blair government, giving Scotland its own regional parliament in 1999 for the first time since 1707, backfired. Far from slaking the Scottish appetite for full independence, it only made secession seem more thinkable and gave the Scottish Nationalists, the governing party in Edinburgh, more credibility.
The Scottish Nationalist Party and its leader Alex Salmond, the first minister of the Scottish Parliament, are highly popular with local voters. Salmond pushed hard for this referendum, and in 2012 won the consent of the British government (what was London thinking?) The Tory government campaign urging Scottish voters to vote to stay in the UK has been spectacularly inept.
It's anybody's guess what will happen if independence wins. At the very least, it would put pressure on London to convert the United Kingdom into a far more federalist country. Even so, full independence for Scotland is not out of the question.
As cynics have pointed out, Tory Prime Minister David Cameron doesn't want to be remembered as the British leader who presided over the dissolution of the United Kingdom. On the other hand, if relatively left-wing Scotland were to quit the UK, the remainder of Britain would be solidly Tory.
The prospect of an independent Scotland raises all sorts of intriguing questions. How far can this trend go? Ever since the breakup of the Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia, new states have been carved out of existing nations.
In places like Central Europe, however, the creation of new nations doesn't solve the problem of ethnic minorities, but only changes who is in the majority. There are Serbs in Kosovo, Russians in Latvia, Hungarians in Rumania, and of course Russians in Ukraine. Create an independent East Ukraine, majority Russian, and you create a new Ukrainian minority. The Balkans have been at this for more than a century.
If the Scots actually become independent, it also threatens such venerable unitary nations as Spain, France and Italy, as well as Britain. That's why the leaders of the EU have signaled that an independent Scotland would not be welcome as a member. If Scotland secedes, Catalonia will be next. And if Catalonia, why not Brittany and Northern Italy? Why not Wales? Not to mention Quebec.
Most major nations were created by acts of conquest and often brutal suppression of ethnic and linguistic minorities. Irish schoolchildren got their knuckles rapped for speaking Irish in school. In Catalonia, kids caught speaking Catalan were warned, "Habla Cristiano!" as if Castilian Spanish were the language of Christ and Catalan the idiom of Satan. But it is absolutely startling to see hundreds of years of political history unwinding.
An American progressive can only witness all this with a mix of bemusement and envy. You may recall that in the fall of 2004, after George Bush won the election, an exasperated blogger called for North America to be re-divided into the United States of Canada to the north and Jesusland to the south. The new, permanently progressive northern federation would include Canada, the northeast USA, the west coast, a few mostly liberal states such as Illinois and Minnesota across the middle -- and Jesusland would become its own country. Places like Austin and Denver would be minority liberal outposts in a sea of conservatism (sorry.)
A few months earlier, at the Democratic National Convention, a novice senator named Barack Obama had called for ending the idea that the U.S. is divided into mutually hostile Red States and Blue States. Obama later staked his presidency on finding areas of common ground -- and failed. The U.S. is more bitterly divided today by political culture, ideology, and region than at any time since the Civil War.
Maybe it makes sense to divide America into one country that respects science and levies taxation to support public goods, and another country of Biblical literalism and hatred of government. The progressive states of the northeast, the upper Midwest, and west coast, which send a lot of net dollars to subsidize the government-hating heartland, would save a bundle, and could establish the policies that most of their citizens want.
On the other hand, that seems awfully cruel to the hardworking ordinary citizens of Jesusland. Regardless of what happens to Scotland, one has to hope that our own country, with all of its terrible divisions, shall not perish from the earth.
Robert Kuttner's new book is Debtors' Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility. He is co-editor of The American Prospect and a senior Fellow at Demos, and teaches at Brandeis University's Heller School.