Let England shake

Scotland’s independence referendum has opened cracks in the United Kingdom

Nobody asked to design a political system for Britain would ever propose the one it has. The one-and-a-bit large islands (and many smaller ones) that The Economist calls home are a hotch-potch of parliamentary systems, unevenly distributed powers and constitutional uncertainties. The set-up is as uneven as Britain’s history is eventful, which is no coincidence: the causes of the mess date back centuries. The latest upheaval—Scotland’s referendum on independence, which ended with a “no” vote on September 18th—has made things untidier still.

The formation of a United Kingdom was far from inevitable. For centuries Scotland was politically closer to France (and at times even to Norway) than it was to England. Even when the Anglo-Welsh and Scottish crowns were joined in 1603, they remained two separate countries, their border a lawless place inhabited by bands of lance-wielding “reivers”. A failed Scottish colonial venture in Panama gave the English the diplomatic leverage to form the United Kingdom in 1707. That an independent Scotland died at the quill rather than at the sword explains why it was never wholly dissolved into the British state. The country kept its own church and legal system. In 1801 Ireland, too, was assimilated into the union by treaty.

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