The decline of empires has throughout history rarely been a pretty sight. When long-held colonies are returned to popular rule, the residents usually have trouble figuring out how to govern themselves. Plus the borders created by the now-former colonial power rarely suit them. Old rivalries resurface under the same or altered forms. Some groups try to lord it over others, or at least are perceived to be trying to. Much of West Africa, Somalia, Iraq and Syria demonstrate this phenomenon, one as old as human tribes have existed.
Sometimes the empire tries to reshape itself to become again an empire. Post-Soviet Russia is today's poster state for that. Within its borders it rigorously represses any separatist tendencies. Think Chechnya. Where neighbours were once part of its territories, it leans on them hard. Think the Ukraine.
However outside Russia and China, the passion for geographical accretion and aggregation that characterizes empire building does largely seem to have run out of steam. Instead factors such as a revival of interest in the cultures and language of previously little regarded historical minorities have resulted in the rise of new regional nationalisms. Countries once united in a largely voluntary way seek to part ways. Quebec, Scotland and Catalonia come to mind today, the Czechs and Slovaks last century, and the Swedes and Norwegians in the 19th century. These places went through long years of being reasonably content to be part of the larger whole. Yet in modern times they yearn to become small again in a world of littler nations.
As a Scots-born national of both Canada and the UK I watch with consternation the antics and distortions of the politicians selling the separatist creed. With both Scotland and Quebec I have no say, being a resident of neither. No voting in referenda for me.
Quebec has been at the game of escape much longer, having been in charge of its own local affairs since the two Canadas (Upper and Lower) were disunited in 1791. Scotland in contrast only got back its own legislature in 1999. In both, political parties favouring separation from the federal whole have done well in elections.
When it is in power the local separatist party has provoked two plebiscites on Quebec's status. One in 1980 on independence or something they christened 'sovereignty-association', the second in 1995 on independence or 'sovereignty-partnership'. The later plebiscite was an unnervingly close-run thing. Scotland's nationalists, being now in power, are running a referendum on independence later this year.
While in Quebec the passion for separation is almost entirely restricted to the majority French-speaking population, in Scotland, where the traditionally distinct Gaelic population of the Highlands and Hebrides might be expected to favour leaving the Sassenachs, the strongest support is in the more populated Lowlands among the Scots working class. The nationalist leadership is largely Lowland, and, unlike in the fight for Irish independence, language barely features as an issue, .
Instead the Nationalist demands centre around keeping all revenues at home, and in that regard the debate is presently focusing in on what will happen with currency. The Scots want to keep using the British pound, as the Quebecois wanted to keep the Canadian dollar. The national governments are not playing along, arguing that separation would weaken the economy of the region that leaves. While the Parti Quebecois government of Quebec has lately taken a new tack of threatening legislation on the wearing of overtly religious garb in order to stir up resentment of immigrants and their foreign ways, the Scottish National Party has been oddly silent on cultural symbols and differences from the rest of Britain. It is all about the money.
While Canada has been working to engage new trading blocs for many years, the rise of UKIP in the UK reflects an opposite trend - the resurgence of the Little Englander mindset among the dominant English component of the British federation. The British may end up having a referendum on EU membership. Certainly it will be a big issue in their next national elections. Canadians have been living for a lifetime with the threat of Quebec separation, but this recent urge to disengage Scotland from Britain at the same time as Britain might seek to leave Europe, is thoroughly disquieting. What is a paid-up Canuck Brit and Scot with no say to do but hope!