I CRIED into my under-salted porridge.

We’d got back from a midwife’s appointment to find our free baby box from the Scottish government on the doorstep, and unpacking it brought a bubble of joy.

The basics were reassuring but it was the art that brought tears: a National Orchestra of Scotland app with music for your baby; a poem from the Makar, the national poet. And a picture from the National Gallery. “Hello wee one,” it says on the back. “We chose this print especially for you.”

The Scottish government says the box “is designed to give every single baby in Scotland an equal start in life”. But it does more than that. A nation is an imagined community, and the Scottish state has worked hard to ensure that we feel our child will be loved by that community.

We don’t hear that from the British state.

Before 2020, a poll showing Scottish independence ahead was like our men’s football team scoring: celebrated magnificently by fans, but not indicative of a consistent lead. But all 14 surveys since June 1 have independence ahead, on average by 7%.

Something is changing, and not just in Scotland. This autumn, the pro-Welsh independence group YesCymru has grown from 2000 paid-up members to 16,000. Support for Welsh independence has risen from 10% in 2012 to 33% today, similar levels to those seen in Scotland before 2014.

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That year, the year of Scotland’s independence referendum, polls in Northern Ireland said that 65% wanted to remain in the UK. By 2017, in the wake of Brexit, young Protestants in Coleraine were telling me that although it made them sad, joining Ireland to stay in the EU probably made sense. Support for the status quo has fallen to 34%, with 35% preferring a united Ireland outright.

“The gears have shifted so much,” said Sean Fearon, a Northern Irish climate activist and PhD student who I recently spoke to over Zoom. “Particularly among younger people, there is a much, much stronger desire for Irish unification.”

The United Kingdom has been a contested idea ever since it began to form. But it was the Marxist theorist, Tom Nairn, who first seriously traced the current fault lines in his 1977 book The Break-Up of Britain. Now 88, he’s usually cautious about predicting timelines. But speaking to me for this piece, he finally got specific. “Within the next five years, in one form or another, break-up is likely to come about”.

As Nairn identified, some forces driving this process move slowly. One is geopolitics. Three centuries ago, English and Scottish elites joined forces to colonise the world. During the Cold War, Britain’s family of “home nations” huddled under the protection of nuclear weapons. Today, after Iraq, Brexit and genuflecting to Trump, the advantages of presenting as British rather than, say, Scottish are fading.

Another is communications technology. Modern nations were birthed in part by 19th-century innovations such as the printing press, followed by radio and television in the century after. Social media disrupts that process. More than ever, people are inventing new identities and putting old ones to new use. The production of ideas and identities is less top-down than ever.

Economics is yet another. In The Break-up of Britain, Nairn defined nationalism as “mobilisation against the unpalatable truth of grossly uneven development”. Waves of capitalism break differently on different shores, intensifying regional variations and driving demand for independent governance. If this is generally true, then it’s very true in the UK, Europe’s most geographically unequal country. The City in London and the housing bubble in the south-east suck in investment, wealth and youth, and blow out debt, austerity, stress and regret.

And there are events.

After the banks crashed, Scotland and Wales voted for the steady hand of Gordon Brown but got David Cameron’s axe. Social security was the duvet under which we all snuggled. It gave millions a direct relationship with the state. But that security was snatched away by the humiliating cruelty of Universal Credit.

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Older English voters, infuriated by the status quo but unable to escape the cage of the British state, broke their heads against its bars, and Brexited. A younger generation radicalised by reality – war, climate change, austerity, housing – spent a dozen desperate years demanding change. Corbynism was Westminster’s chance to compromise. It didn’t.

Then came the virus. For many, the pandemic has been one of those moments that clarifies a question: do we want decisions about our lives made in Westminster – or in Holyrood, the Senedd, Stormont, or the Oireachtas?

Every country is a card-house of contradictions; every nation a disputed story, every state, a battlefield of institutions. So most claims about Britain have some truth.

Unionists often say that the UK is about pooling and sharing resources. In a sense, they’re right. Much of modern Britain was built by Labour in 1945, with its institutions of organised justice. But that settlement is being dismantled.

For many, Britain is an aid-giving, democracy-defending global goodie. To see through this, we need to travel 5000 miles away.

In 2016, 214,488 papers were leaked from the Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca, detailing an offshore network of secretive deals, money laundering and tax avoidance. Headlines shouted about dictators and drug lords in the Global South getting their comeuppance. But less widely reported was that most companies mentioned in the Panama papers were registered in the UK, its Overseas Territories or Crown Dependencies.

Last year, academics Reijer Hendrikse and Rodrigo Fernandez analysed this growing offshore world. “Together with the wealth of the world’s billionaire class”, they concluded, it now “effectively constitutes the backbone of global capitalism”.

Yet while London is the global financial hub through which much of this wealth travels, the vast majority of the population are excluded from it, regardless of their attachment to the stories and symbols of Britain.

In December this year, Sinn Fein launched a campaign for a united Ireland. “A new Ireland,” it says on posters across Belfast “will work for you” – pledging “EU membership, jobs, prosperity, and an all-Ireland health service”.

“It’s time,” the party says, “to plan.”

What was once a fight about the past has become a debate about the future.

In Wales, socialists and progressives disappointed by Labour’s election defeat are starting to plan ahead, too.

Siwan Clark is one of the many young people who moved home for lockdown. A few years ago she had left Cardiff for London because of “a feeling that you have to be there, that it was the centre of things”. The pandemic has changed all that. “For a lot of people who’ve moved home, their sphere is turning to more local things,” she said to me over Zoom recently.

Before Covid, Clark said, she wouldn’t have expected most people in Wales to know the name of the first minister. (It’s Mark Drakeford.) “I was extremely ignorant about the Assembly. I just didn’t really engage with it,” she said.

In London, she had joined Labour “in a rage” so that she could vote for Jeremy Corbyn during the post-Brexit leadership challenge. “I was so annoyed by that. I canvassed a lot in 2017. And a lot in 2019.”

Now 26 and back in Wales, Clark has joined Undod, the campaign for radical Welsh independence.

Welsh independence is far from inevitable. But many see it as an ejector seat, likely to be used if Scotland parachutes out of the union. And the situation here is changing rapidly.

“Next year’s election,” says Jamie Maxwell, one of the most thoughtful observers of Scottish politics, “is going to be quite an exciting moment. People around the world will be watching,”

To Maxwell, the situation looks “a bit like Ireland at the start of the 20th century. “You just feel like Scotland is heading towards some sort of denouement.”

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A big part of that is Brexit. Miriam Brett grew up on Shetland, and works in London for a left-wing think tank. For her, it’s not just Boris Johnson’s tone, but also the content of what he says that is turning minds against the union.

She says that for most Scots, Brexit represents a “broad restructuring of our economy. What will that mean for labour rights? What will that mean for climate and environment protections? What will that mean for regulations?” Without the tinted lenses of Anglo-British nationalism, people see it as the same Thatcherite economic agenda that most Scots have been rejecting for decades, she says.

In Scotland, we have our parliament protecting us, nurturing a different political culture. But the English – beyond a few flightless mayoralties and local government deliberately starved of power and resources – have no one to negotiate for them.

Low wages in England’s north-east and soaring homelessness in London are as much failings of the British state as poverty in Wales. Opinion polls show that most people across the UK agree on most things. Like people across much of the West, broadly speaking, we’re liberal social democrats. Where people in England differ – why so many consistently vote Tory – is because the Conservatives are the party of Anglo-British nationalism.

That nationalism is a product of the British state’s archaic, elitist institutions, a legacy of monarchy and empire – and for the people of England to liberate themselves, they must free themselves from it. Confronting your demons is unpleasant, but the alternative is letting them govern you. And the prize is a chance to build a new political system.

Our baby is due on January 8, 2021. I hope they live well into the 2100s. I hope that, as oceans rise and regimes fall, they live in a world that meets these challenges by unleashing the democratic genius and love of which humanity is capable.

I hope that, as they discover the world, they find something fresh and exciting, which everyone can shape, not governed from the musky corridors of long-crumbled empires.

Tom Nairn seems excited about that future. “No one has ever done this before. We’re making it up as we go along,” he told me. “What was once Great Britain, the British Empire, we’re struggling along to replace that with something else, with something new.

“Let’s go ahead, and see what comes out of the maelstrom.”