THE fall of the Berlin Wall was one of my foundational political memories. Images of people rejoicing over the end of a repressive regime, dancing on top of what had just days before been a wall of death and separation, reduced me to tears. I knew then,

at 11 years old, that democracy, human rights and a free, open society were good things worth fighting for.

Some years later, on the cusp of transition from Lower to Upper Sixth, I found a copy of AJP Taylor’s The Hapsburg Monarchy 1809-1918 in a second-hand bookshop. The book was the first I had bought – with my own pocket money – that dealt with the themes that were later to become central to my work: constitutions, good governance, democracy and state-building – and the relationship of these things to both public ethics and national identity.

Because of these influences on my early thought, I wanted to see the lands that were once behind the

Iron Curtain and especially those that had been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The opportunity came in the early 2000s when I took several holidays in Central Europe, travelling by train around Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Transylvania.

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So it was that I found myself climbing up the steep path to Bratislava castle. For those whose notions of Central European castles were shaped by Hammer Horror films and Gothic novels, it is a little disappointing to behold: a large, square, white building with a spindly tower at each corner, looking something like an upturned bedstead.

It just so happened that the day I was there coincided with a state visit. In the castle courtyard a walkway had been cordoned off with red ropes. A small honour guard was assembled in ceremonial uniforms. A band played. In walked the presidents – Heinz Fischer of Austria and Ivan Gasparovic of Slovakia. Two democratically elected heads of state, of two equal European countries, walking side by side in what only a century before had been part of the Hapsburg Empire.

I had not yet discovered Tom Nairn’s After Britain or Norman Davis’s Vanished Kingdoms, but immediately I could see the parallels. This was what a mature, equal relationship between independent but closely co-operating states might look like. Here was a future vision of the post-imperial relationship between an independent Scotland and an independent England.

The decline of the Hapsburg Empire was slow: having been defeated by Napoleon and then by Prussia, it spent the 19th century slipping down the ranking of Europe’s great powers. Twentieth century historians, with the benefit of hindsight, often saw an inevitability in its collapse.

More recent historians have challenged that narrative. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, as it became after the great constitutional Compromise (“Ausgleich”) of 1867, had some life in it.

The empire consisted of two parts, an Austrian part and a Hungarian part, each with their own elected parliaments, their own governments, their own finances.

Only the army, navy, foreign affairs and some aspects of joint finance were “common matters”. There was

a customs union uniting the two halves of the empire in a single market and co-operation on joint infrastructure projects such as railways, but these had to be renewed every 10 years.

Having failed at repression in the 1850s, after 1867 the Austro-Hungarian Empire became increasingly pluralistic and tolerant.

The nationalities, although denied political sovereignty (which was in any case only a minority demand), enjoyed substantial cultural autonomy and internal self-rule.

The empire was a flourishing example of a federal, plurinational society. The public administration, although bureaucratic and inflexible, was competent and honest.

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The empire also made progress in industrialisation, infrastructure, economic growth and social legislation. Labour protections and sickness and unemployment insurance were in advance of those in Britain at the time.

But when it fell, it fell fast. The stresses of the First World War strained the institutions and soured the relationships that had made the empire possible.

The war effort presented a challenge – to governance, state administrative capacity, procurement and distribution – that the empire could not meet. Its legitimacy dissolved. Under pressure, the empire was found to be hollow and imploded.

Dying Empire Syndrome is a strange disease. The outside can look healthy enough, even as the inside rots morally – like a great tree, whose height belies its dead core, until the wind pushes it over.

The UK is in just this condition. The British Government has revealed itself to be thoroughly corrupt and callously incompetent. The heart of oak is rotten. Covid-19 is the gale, Brexit the coming hurricane.

This is a counsel of hope, not despair. Fear not. There is an opportunity to rebuild better. But we must be ready.

The Scottish Government and all in the independence movement must understand the nature and scale of the task ahead. It is not about winning a referendum. It is about building a viable Scottish state that can weather the storm.

This column welcomes questions from readers

Watch the TNT show at 7pm on Wednesday, August 12 with guest former MEP Heather Anderson