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18 September 2014updated 24 Jun 2021 12:58pm

Edinburgh reaches fever pitch, Salmond’s “no change” change, and Nick Robinson smells anxiety

NS editor Jason Cowley writes from a cold, grey-skied Edinburgh on the eve of the vote.

By Jason Cowley

Whenever I am in Edinburgh I try to eat at least once at Centotre, an unpretentious, family-owned Italian restaurant occupying the site of a grand, echoing old banking hall on George Street, in the New Town, just a short walk from Bute House, the First Minister’s official residence in Charlotte Square. It opens early for breakfast and it’s one of those places where you can drop in at any time for a coffee meeting or a drink or something to eat. It has free wifi and the atmosphere is briskly efficient; in the evening, when the lights are dimmed, everything feels more intimate. On one occasion I had breakfast, lunch and dinner there and left still eager to return the next day.

This summer I set off on a warm afternoon for lunch at Centotre. I hadn’t booked a table and when I arrived I discovered another restaurant was occupying its space. I went inside and it was then that I realised Centotre had merely changed its name to the user-friendly (and, I was told, more easily pronounced) Contini (the family name of the owners). “We’ve changed but everything is the same,” the maître d’ said. “The same family, same team, same menu, same fresh produce.”

I was reminded of Alex Salmond’s reassurance strategy for Scottish voters, which could be summarised as continuity in change. Or, as Giuseppe di Lampedusa wrote in The Leopard, his melancholic novel about the decline of an aristocratic Sicilian family and the unification of Italy: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”

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I am writing these notes from a cold, grey-skied Edinburgh on the eve of the vote. The atmosphere in the city feels febrile; there is an imminent sense of an ending – of the end of the long campaign, of the end even of the United Kingdom. The campaign has quickened extraordinarily in recent weeks, sweeping everyone along in a kind of fervour. Alex Salmond is correct when he speaks of something unprecedented happening in Scotland, a democratic flourishing of a kind most of us outside Scotland have never experienced and perhaps never will. There is exhilaration and hope as well as anxiety and fear.

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“The intimidated, decent majority are our last hope,” one friend, an academic worried about university funding cuts and his pension, said to me. He voted No. What you don’t hear is mutterings of indifference.

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Nick Robinson, the BBC’s unfairly maligned political editor, has spoken of almost being able to “smell the anxiety” whenever he is close to David Cameron and Ed Miliband. The Westminster elite have been spectacularly complacent about Scotland and the referendum campaign. A year ago I spoke to a senior shadow cabinet member about the very real possibility that Scots would opt for independence. He was dismissive. “We’ll win the referendum and then we’ll win the election.” It was useful to get that learnt, to quote Philip Larkin, and it has been quite something to watch the establishment scrambling in panic over recent days, making up policy on the run and promising new devolved powers for Scotland.

But how late it all was, how late. And why should we trust any public vow made by Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, who, together with Cameron and Miliband, pledged extensive new powers to Scotland in the event of a No vote? Their “declaration” was published on the front page of the Daily Record on 16 September, under the headline “The Vow”. The SNP promptly and sarcastically dismissed it as the last, desperate act of a discredited elite.

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When I visited Alistair Darling at the Better Together offices in Glasgow in June, I asked him what a good result would be. “A good result in September is one that puts the matter [of independence] to bed for a generation,” he said. I pushed him to elaborate: would less than 40 per cent voting Yes be convincing enough? “I’ll tell you when I see it. What you want people to say is we’ve had our referendum and we’ve made our decision. We need a good turnout . . .”

Darling will get his good turnout – it was wonderful that nearly 4.3 million people in Scotland registered to vote, 97 per cent of all those eligible – but surely not the resounding victory he and his allies expected only a few weeks ago. Yet however close the final result, Scotland has experienced something remarkable and precious during these summer months: a democratic awakening that has shaken the very foundations of the British state. If we want things in Britain to stay as they are, things will have to change.

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I had coffee recently with Gerry Hassan, the writer and academic who coined the phrase “Third Scotland” to characterise the emergence of the radical groupings that are loyal to neither the machine politics of Labour nor the SNP. It’s always fascinating when a phrase enters the language, as Hassan’s has, and I was reminded of an article I wrote about Ian McEwan in 2005, in which I called him our “national novelist”, because of his continuous, imaginative engagement with present times. Now, I am amused to see, this is how McEwan is routinely described whenever he is profiled.

I’ve just read and enjoyed his latest novel, The Children Act, which explores the clash between religious belief and the secular legal imagination. It’s a compelling contem­porary subject – think of the struggles of poor Ashya King – but perhaps I’ll now have to adapt my coinage; because, of which nation is McEwan the national novelist? By the time you read this, we should know.