Breaking up countries, even peacefully, runs against the tide of history. Civic virtues can unite a people, despite their history and cultures.
Britain once looked down on the tribal divisions of other countries. It held up its own identity as that of a people united not just by language, history, and geography, but by high ideals of civic life.
Thus the name Great Britain, an expression that Francis Bacon saw as the “perfect union of bodies, politics – as well as natural.” And that was back in 1603.
On Wednesday, however, the possible dissolution of Britain may have started. The leader of Scotland’s regional government, Alex Salmond, announced his preference for a referendum in 2014 that would give the 5 million Scots two choices: either full independence or, something slightly less, maximum autonomy.
If Scotland does go it alone, it would go against the tide of history. Britain, like the United States, Brazil, India, Indonesia, and other countries with diverse peoples, has indeed shown that a shared civic life, rooted in a commitment to rights, freedom, and elected government, can be a powerful unifying force.
Those enduring ideals create a social glue. They challenge the ancient notions that a country must be monocultural or that “self-determination” is only for people of like race or ethnicity.