Independence, partition and devo max - the narratives of separation

Say "Independence for Scotland" to many people across the English-speaking* world and you can be quietly confident that the image forming their minds' eye looks something like this: -

There is a reason for this. Whether we like it or not; where facts fail, narratives succeed. And at no time are narratives more important as when nations are seeking to turn a hazy idea of sovereignty and self determination into a living, breathing state with institutions, laws and most importantly, a social contract between the rulers and the ruled.

Since the pro-independence Scottish National Party became the largest in Scotland's parliament following the 2011 election, the issue of independence for Scotland has emerged as a plausible eventuality.

Although the United Kingdom is an old and established democracy and state, competing regional indentities are still a very raw reality.

So, amongst all the discussion about political points and legalese, Londonstani was interested to read Anthony Barnett's article over at Open Democracy where, quoting Benedict Brogan of the Telegraph, he warns of the cost of defending the union of united kingdoms if the price was a "descent into mean squabbles and brutal negativity".

Brogan argues that the ruling Tory party's approach to campaigning against Scottish independence in a future referendum should not be an all-out onslaught that would run the risk of coming across as anti-Scottish. Part of his justification was the need to deal with the post-referendum reality, whatever it may be.

"His [Prime Minister David Cameron] reticence is required not because it will deprive Mr Salmond of something to complain about, but because he must reserve himself for the consequences of the vote. Whatever the outcome of the referendum, there will have to be a renegotiation of the terms between Scotland and the rest of the Union. Whether Scotland chooses independence or opts to remain, there must follow a detailed re-balancing of the political and financial relationship. Be it the “devo-max” Mr Salmond speaks of, or some other arrangement, Mr Cameron must be in a position to negotiate as a respected equal after Scotland has decided."

This sounds like the right way to go about the legally tricky and emotional charged process of decoupling communities with long, close (and often acrimonious) history.

A good example of when this can go wrong is painfully evident in the Indian subcontinent. Pakistan scholars such as Stephen Cohen have noted that the idea of Pakistan was born out of an existential fear amongst the Muslim population of British-ruled India. In fact, Nicholas Schmidle's book about Pakistan takes its title from a pamphlet written in 1933 by a Indian Muslim worrying about the future of his community in a free India: To Live or to Perish Forever.

One version of events suggests that the men who carved India and Pakistan out of British India originally planned for a united India. But when they couldn't agree on a formulation that Muslim leaders felt safeguarded their community, the narrative of a separate Muslim land for a separate Muslim nation was born. And to this day, the effects of that narrative makes its presence felt on a global level.

Londonstani can't think of a better historical illustration of the power of narratives to change realities than Bradlaugh Hall in Lahore, the cultural capital of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

This once magnificent building, built by the first avowed atheist member of the British parliament at the turn of the 20th century, played a central role in the founding and growth of the political party that rules India today.

Back in today's Britain, where Anthony Barnett seems to ask why the ethnicities that make up the UK couldn't have their own countries and yet live together happily, Londonstani wonders whether its time to consider a new narrative of belonging for the UK. One that doesn't focus on the outmoded concept of "blood and soil" but instead revolves around whether people share a mutual dependency within interdependent cultures.

* In Londonstani's experience, Braveheart was massively popular in the Arabic-speaking Middle East - Can't imagine why.