Neal Ascherson

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Susana Vera/Reuters. People wave a Catalan separatist flag after the banned independence referendum in Barcelona, October 2, 2017

When is it a referendum, and when is it a plebiscite?

Last week brought two passionate and dramatic popular votes for independence, in Iraqi Kurdistan and in Catalonia, Spain. Everyone, even those who dismissed both votes as illegal and meaningless, called them “referendums.” But were they? In practice, the two terms—”referendum” and “plebiscite”—are hopelessly tangled.

My young friend Joan (a male name in his country) has just voted Yes to the question “Should Catalonia become an independent republic?” He emails me: “I casted [sic] my ballot with watering eyes,” and a photo shows him smiling in order to hold back tears as he puts his vote in the box.…  Seguir leyendo »

From Great Britain to Little England

It was Queen Elizabeth’s official 90th birthday celebration last Sunday, and tables for 10,000 guests were set along the Mall in central London. Steadily the rain fell, dripping out of the tubas of the bands and softening the sandwiches, but Her Majesty’s subjects munched on with stoic British spirit, standing up to cheer as she passed.

In her fuchsia coat and matching hat, she waved and grinned as if nothing had changed and never would. But next week, a very great change may come.

On Thursday, Britons will vote in a referendum on whether their country should stay in the European Union or leave it.…  Seguir leyendo »

Queen Elizabeth II, at 89, is a very old lady. By day, her subjects see less of her than they used to. But by night, it’s different. Then she and her family visit millions of households up and down the kingdom. Up to a third of Britons have dreams about Her Majesty and the royals.

According to “Dreams About H.M. the Queen and Other Members of the Royal Family,” the classic study by Brian Masters, author of several books about the British aristocracy, the dreams frequently involve cups of tea. A characteristic scenario is that she, or sometimes he, settles down at your kitchen table.…  Seguir leyendo »

Scotland’s High Road to Home Rule

Almost no one in Britain expected the electoral earthquake of May 2015. Twin shocks shattered expectations about the next government and left a yawning fissure across the United Kingdom.

The first was that David Cameron’s Conservatives won a majority in the House of Commons, after opinion polls had predicted a “hung Parliament.” The second was Scotland’s becoming a one-party state overnight, after the Scottish National Party took 56 of Scotland’s 59 seats in Westminster. The main victim was Labour, once dominant, now vanquished.

Labour’s unexpected collapse, under the leadership of Ed Miliband, was such that even if the party had held all its 41 Scottish seats (instead of losing 40 of them), it would have been doomed by its failure in England and Wales.…  Seguir leyendo »

The Union Jack flag waved near Stirling Castle on February 3, 2014 in Scotland. Scots will vote in a referendum on independence on Sept. 18. Credit Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

One thing is certain: Whatever the outcome, this referendum campaign is changing Scotland irrevocably. Whether the Scots vote yes or no to independence on Sept. 18, their sense of what is possible for this small nation will have been transformed.

Reporting on Scottish politics through wind and rain for almost 40 years, I have covered three referendums on self-government. The first, in 1979, offered a modest elected assembly: A slim majority of voters approved it, but the turnout fell short of the threshold required for the proposal to become law. The second, in 1997, proposed a restored Scottish Parliament controlling most internal affairs.…  Seguir leyendo »

It was 1977 when Tom Nairn spooked the political world with his famous book, The Break-Up of Britain. He predicted Scottish independence, a bit prematurely. But last Tuesday, as Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon launched their government's manifesto for an independent Scotland, ancient Britain's citizens were being offered a break-through as much as a break-up.

In itself, the fat policy manual isn't revolutionary. Scotland's Future is a sturdy, sensible, well-written catalogue of aspirations – all of them achievable with luck and skill. But what's so exhilarating is the flock of many-coloured hopes gathering behind this project, like seabirds in the wake of a working trawler.…  Seguir leyendo »

“The Breakup of Britain”? It sounds like a fantasy fiction title. To many people across the world, including the English themselves, it is inconceivable that this deep-rooted United Kingdom, the oldest royal democracy in the world, could split apart.

In the last few weeks, however, official London has panicked over the rising clamor of voices from all over the British Isles suddenly agreeing that the archaic structure of “Great Britain” is overdue for a shake-up — even a breakup.

Nowhere are these voices in better harmony than in Scotland. If “Britain” is more than a word on a passport, why do most Scots now feel their primary identity is not British?…  Seguir leyendo »

'The Russians like what they see in Georgia at the moment." Irakli Alasania, the young Georgian whom many in the west would like to see replacing Mikheil Saakashvili as president, was in London this month, commenting bitterly on his country's diplomatic impotence.

Alasania, at 34, is already an experienced politician with global contacts, especially in the United States, where the Obama administration is showing signs of impatience with Saakashvili's obstinacy. More than a year after the disastrous war with Russia over South Ossetia, Georgia is still insisting on its "territorial integrity", and yet the de facto independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia has been a reality for 16 years now.…  Seguir leyendo »