Break-up of UK on cards, says top civil servant
BRITAIN's most senior civil servant has publicly questioned whether the United Kingdom will still exist in a few years' time.
Gus O'Donnell, who is the head of more than 440,000 civil servants in England, Scotland and Wales, says it is doubtful the union can survive increasing pressure for Scottish independence.
The admission from such a senior non-political figure that the break-up of Britain is now a real possibility is likely to push the issue up the UK political agenda.
"Over the next few years there will be enormous challenges, such as whether to keep our Kingdom United," he warns officials and politicians.
The remarks came in his final public statement before he steps down as head of the Civil Service and Cabinet Secretary on January 1.
Mr O'Donnell's intervention over the union comes as British voters and politicians face growing questions about the future of the UK as a single country.
Alex Salmond's Scottish Nationalist Party dominates the Scottish Parliament and has pledged a referendum on independence before 2016.
When Mr Salmond's nationalists won a resounding victory in the Scottish election in May, Prime Minister David Cameron vowed to fight "with every fibre" to keep Scotland in the union.
Ministers are now gearing up to tackle one of the long-standing anomalies raised by the creation of Scottish Parliament, the so-called West Lothian Question, which relates to the fact that MPs representing Scottish seats can vote at Westminster on issues like health and education in England, while English MPs have no say over those areas in Scotland.
The Government this week confirmed that the commission will be set up in February and report in 2013. It could lead to the first change in the voting rights of MPs since 1707.
Mr O'Donnell's words about the future of the UK come as defenders of the union struggle to agree on how to respond to Mr Salmond's referendum plan.
Mr Salmond has suggested he could pose a three-option question, offering Scots the options of the status quo, outright independence or a third option of remaining in the UK but increasing the devolved powers of the Scottish Parliament.
Mr Cameron has recently established a Cabinet sub-committee to consider the UK government's approach to a Scottish referendum.
It is understood some ministers are pushing backing the "devo-max" option to give the Scottish Parliament more power. But others believe handing Mr Salmond more power could ultimately lead to full independence and a desire to change the law to restrict the referendum to an 'in/out' question.
Some senior Conservatives want Mr Cameron to seize control of the agenda and call a Scottish referendum himself.
Whenever the vote comes, the unionist effort faces a huge challenge against Mr Salmond's well-funded and organised independence campaign. (© Daily Telegraph, London)