With a few weeks to go before the referendum on Scotland’s independence from the UK, opinion polls continue to show a significant lead for the “No” camp.
This is not surprising since it is well-known that the status quo position always has a good chance to win out in these situations: as human beings we have a natural inclination towards the familiar, and a corresponding distaste and even outright fear of the unknown.
England and Scotland, enemies for long centuries, first forged a joint monarchy with the accession of Scotland’s James VI to the English throne in 1603.
But it was only after the Act of Union in 1707 that the United Kingdom came into being; a union of states that quickly rose to become a dominant power in the world with an empire spanning the globe.
I recall noting in 2007 how the three-hundredth anniversary of this remarkable union passed almost without comment. Could anybody imagine the USA forgetting its three-hundredth birthday, I wonder?
Even today, despite many challenges, the United Kingdom remains a first-rate economic nation blessed with levels of stability, peace, and prosperity that are envied by much of the world. This undoubtedly makes it an extremely rare historical example of a union of historical nations that has actually worked.
Compare it, for instance with the fate of most of the “cobbled-together” nations of the 20th Century which have already ceased to be. Czechoslovakia has split again into its two constituent peoples, Yugoslavia collapsed amidst terrible bloodshed in the 1990s. Even the Soviet Union, held together for decades by the vice-like grip of totalitarianism, is no more.
The most up-to-date example being Iraq, a country constructed from the region’s disparate ethnic groups and religions forced under one flag by the British and French after the First World War; now seemingly disintegrating in a sea of blood.
Iraq is perhaps the final bloody end to the disastrous 20th Century-style of forced national merger.
But in a strange way the current Scotland vote may indicate to us that the long term prospects for the "superstate" may be improving. In future the supranational multi-state construct may not only be feasible but actually prove inevitable.
As I’ve said, the “No” vote in Scotland is strong, with those seeking a break-up looking likely to suffer defeat. It would appear that the forces supporting the Union are simply too ingrained for them to overcome.
Pulling off a successful extrication from the UK means grappling with issues ranging from which currency Scots would have, to which BBC programmes they would be able to watch. The ramifications of separation, political, economic. military and social, are huge.
What we are seeing is that modern 21st Century nations have developed an interdependency which simply did not exist in the past.Quite simply the lives of the English and the Scots are probably now too intertwined to ever separate.
The result of the vote will be carefully observed, for there is an expectation that the whole of the UK itself may soon be voting - this time on its membership of the European Union.
These two votes are themselves inter-connected.
For instance the UK (minus an independent Scotland) might vote to leave the EU and to regain control of its immigration policy. But how could any immigration control be established whilst maintaining open borders with Scotland and Ireland who would remain EU members?
Problems like that could easily prove intractable.
Thus the extrication problems of the Scotland debate are multiplied tenfold when it comes to the issue of Britain’s EU membership. So entangled is our economy with that of the continent that it is generally agreed that withdrawal would require the UK to enter the European Economic Area (a sort of EU-lite) at least as a stop-gap measure.
Such an arrangement would actually leave many of the EU’s least-liked regulations still firmly in place, at least on a temporary basis. But this would be necessary since cutting the UK’s ties with the EU without protecting painfully negotiated trade agreements is generally considered to be disastrous.
But in fact our membership of the EU is only one aspect of the labyrinthine systems which now govern the affairs of all modern nations.
The UK is also tied into a bewildering array of other regional and global organisations and agreements that most people have never even heard-of and yet are affected by every day of their lives.
We now live in that “global village” first spoken of by Marshall McLuhan.
What we are learning is that there is really no such thing as a truly independent country in the 21st Century. Multi-national constructs, once difficult to hold together, will in the future become increasingly difficult to avoid.
If it really does seem that the days of the nation-state are numbered, then we must remember that this was all along an intrinsic part of the vision for a United Europe (and ultimately world) going back to the early days of the 20th Century.
But what has all of this got to do with a theological blog, I hear you say?
Well, actually a great deal.
You see the nation-state is God’s idea
It was God who in terms of the countries of the world, “marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands.” (Acts 17:26)
He has done so ever since the days of Babel, when noting Man’s propensity for evil, God frustrated his malevolent plans by bringing in a degree of confusion and division which has reigned ever since (Gen 11:1-9).
Babel was the beginning of the nation-state.
Each ethnic group, bolstered by a common tongue, would form its own identity, and erect defensible national boundaries to preserve the distinctiveness of that identity.
This was not human history gone wrong, as the visionaries of a United Europe believed but rather the result of divine design.
It was a God of infinite diversity who decreed the diversity of nations. In their separateness God would “divide and rule” over them.
‘It is here that we note the divergent ways in which God deals respectively with the saved and the unsaved.
His plan for unredeemed humanity is continual division, confusion and disharmony.
This does not in itself have to mean war, of course. Where men respect national borders there is no need for war; it is Man's lust for power that leads to conflict.
Now national boundaries will change over time, some nations will disappear, and new nations emerge; it is the concept of the nation-state with its own definable boundaries that is to be preserved.
In contrast, God's will for redeemed humanity is unity, harmony and oneness in Christ. Within the Church there are to be no barriers of sex, race, class or tribe or nation (Acts 2:17-18; Gal 3:28; Col 3:11).
The Pentecost reference is most apposite here since in many respects the outpouring of tongues on that momentous day signified the reversal of the curse of different tongues given at Babel.
But rebellious Man seeks to reverse Babel also.
It is not for nothing that the European Parliament building in Strasbourg is modelled on the Tower of Babel since the overthrow of that divine judgement is the avowed aim of its builders.
Histroy testifies to the way that national integrity limits the spread of Man’s evil. Witness how the infant Christ could find safety from the murderous rage of Herod by flight to a country safe from that madman’s reach.
The medieval papacy reigned supreme across Europe until the rise of Protestant nation-states capable of resisting Rome and protecting the fledgling Reformation’s leaders.
And today, many thousands still seek refuge from oppression and persecution by fleeing to safe countries where their own government cannot reach them.
National borders thereby signify a defence against tyranny (Dan 11:41).
Whilst the world dreams of unity, we know from Scripture that in reality a world without borders would quickly become a global nightmare with the inevitable installation of a world-ruler whose tyranny stops at no border and whose law reigns in every land (Rev 13:7).
To where could one flee from such a tyrant since he would control all nations?
Whether we in these islands seek protection from such a nightmare within a continued United Kingdom or vote to do so within the renewed borders of its constituent nations; let us not miss what really matters.
All believers must value the concept of the nation-state itself, and we must cherish and defend it from the slow attritional attacks of its enemies.
For we will miss it when it is gone