By Trevor Busch
This week, Canadians and other citizens of the British Commonwealth, in capitals and cities and towns around the world, on every continent that straddles the globe — could bear witness to the end of an era.
On Thursday, Scotland’s voters will be headed to the polls to decide the fate of that nation’s 307-year union with England through an independence referendum. And although many polls are currently showing a slim majority for the no side in the upcoming referendum, the jury still remains out on just what that outcome will be. One thing is for sure — the vote will be a much closer run than anyone had anticipated at the outset of the campaign.
A victory for the yes camp in the referendum would mean, quite literally, the disintegration of the United Kingdom, and probably the final chapter of the once-great British Empire. This was a nation that had remained virtually undefeated on almost every battlefield since William the Conqueror crossed the British Channel and bested an English army in 1066. The thousand- year empire that Adolf Hitler had boasted and dreamed about for Nazi Germany lasted barely a dozen years. The seeds that were sown by the Norman conquest in 1066 eventually achieved what Hitler could only fantasize about. When it comes to nations and empires, that’s quite a track record — together in the annals of time with such cultural luminaries as the Roman Empire or the reign of the pharaohs over Egypt.
The nation of Wellington and Nelson, of Shakespeare, Newton, Darwin, of Cromwell and Churchill — is dangerously close to being laid low by the mark of millions on an seemingly insignificant ballot. Winston Churchill, once famously quoted during the darker days of WWII, “That if the British Empire should last for a thousand years, men will still say — this was her finest hour” would probably never have believed that less than 50 years after his death the nation he so stoutly defended against the fascist hordes would stand poised to tear itself apart through a measly referendum.
It was once said the sun never sets on the British Empire. For a nation that once controlled almost 27 per cent of the entire globe, on all continents, oceans, and seas, this was an adage that was really more truth than metaphor. The dreaded Pax Britannica was the world policeman of her time, patrolling the world’s oceans and enforcing British morals, laws and religion on millions of subjects, spreading the language of a tiny island nation so profusely throughout that today the majority of the world’s inhabitants speak only English, Spanish, and Mandarin Chinese.
While one can wax sentimental about the glory days of the British Empire, in truth, the United Kingdom has never really been as united as many might have us believe. In the days of showdown between France and Britain on the world stage — a showdown that would eventually spawn our own British North America (more colloquially known as Canada) — it was a favourite slogan of our British overloads that policy should be “Make the world England.” Now, it seems, the United Kingdom is simply struggling to retain the British Isles as England. How the mighty have fallen — and it will by no means be a foregone conclusion on Thursday.
It is worth noting, of course, that no one — at least in a sense — asked the Scottish people if they wanted to join with England in the almost now-fantasy past of 1707. Although the Acts of Union were passed by both parliaments of England and Scotland, these were hardly the democratic bodies we would expect to see today, nor were they truly elected in the strictest sense of the word. And it is no secret there had been long-standing animosity between the two kingdoms long before 1707, complete with English atrocities and periods of military occupation. However, one would think this was all water under the proverbial bridge by now — despite the less-than-good-natured assessment of many Scots that the English are a nation of “wankers.” So to play devil’s advocate, perhaps the Scots are finally getting their say.
Still, a yes vote will set dangerous precedents, and weaken the overall stability of a perfectly viable and sovereign nation — what might remain of it, that is. There can be little doubt a burgeoning independence movement in Wales, although currently dismissed by most observers, would take a powerful cue from their Scottish neighbours voting for independence.
And that is only the tip of the iceberg. What is to become, for instance, of Northern Ireland, a territory only recently having achieved peace, should the United Kingdom disintegrate or its power be dangerously weakened by secessionist internal squabbling? Would the Republic of Ireland — traditionally no fan of England or the British Crown — take it as a cue to attempt to occupy and annex the largely Protestant territory, whose counties and cities it has long coveted?
And what if the British decided to take a county-by-county vote approach to a secessionist Scotland, with those counties that vote against independence remaining under British protection, as happened in Ireland almost a century ago. Would we be about to witness a civil conflict between both nations, between Protestant and Catholic, brother against brother? That is what happened when the English and Irish attempted to solve the “Irish Question” in the early part of the 20th century, and the result was decades of bloody on-again, off-again, conflict. Let us hope both nations learned enough from that bitter sectarian conflict that they choose to avoid that troubling conclusion.
As an outsider looking in, it is hard not to imagine a young Scottish populace perhaps weaned a bit too strongly on Mel Gibson’s 1995 magnum opus Braveheart, which no doubt still stirs Scottish hearts with its traditional account of English brutality, absolutism, and indifference to Scottish sovereignty. That, however, would be a dangerous and insulting oversimplification of the true situation in Scotland today.
There is another danger here in a yes victory, and it isn’t just for the health of the British Crown. Should the Scots vote for independence, it will add a barrel of gasoline to the smoldering ruins of the current sovereignty movement in Quebec. There are strong similarities between the razor-thin victory of the no side in 1995’s Quebec sovereignty referendum and Thursday’s Scottish independence referendum, and virtually none of them are good — other than the fact that in Quebec the no side took the day, albeit by the skin of their teeth. Independence for Scotland will no doubt resurrect the spectre that has haunted Canada for decades — if they did it, why can’t we — perhaps proving the unfortunate truth that the Quebec question never really goes away for Canadians, both inside and outside of Quebec.
In the end, should the United Kingdom choose to self-destruct this week, it will be a sad day for hundreds of thousands of Canadians who still feel a strong connection to the empire, or may have fought and died, at least in part, to defend that connection and the powerful ties that bind. Canada is a nation of immigrants, founded by immigrants, and no small portion of those founding fathers and stalwart pioneers sourced their ancestry from some branch of Mother England, Scotland or Ireland.
Turn the page, and another chapter begins. In his immortal poem The Hollow Men, T.S. Eliot wrote “This is the way the world ends, not with a bang, but with a whimper.”
Should Scots choose to vote yes tomorrow, those words might ring true, and the sun may indeed finally set on the British Empire.