The Better Together campaign has been gripped by something approaching blind panic since the publication of a poll on 6 September which put Yes Scotland ahead for the first time. Since the beginning of August, week by remorseless week, the No campaign’s poll lead has narrowed to the extent that Alex Salmond and independence campaigners are now as close as they could have hoped to breaking the British state and winning independence for Scotland.
We have long predicted that the outcome would be close and have been aghast at the complacency of the Westminster elite, for whom the standard line about Scottish independence was: “It just won’t happen.” Labour said something similar in the run-up to the 2011 Scottish election, when the Scottish National Party overturned a double-digit lead and won resoundingly. That victory set us on the road to where we are today.
David Cameron has from the beginning of negotiations been outmanoeuvred by Mr Salmond. His refusal to allow for a multi-option ballot could well prove to be a fatal error, with dire consequences for his premiership.
These are desperate days for the Prime Minister, who is struggling even to keep his own party together. It is hard to recall a significant contribution from him to the referendum campaign, beyond a single speech, delivered in February to a near-empty velodrome at the Olympic Park in east London. Mr Cameron has been rendered virtually mute by the decisive defeat of Conservatism in Scotland. To paraphrase Charles Kennedy: Margaret Thatcher did more for independence than any Scottish nationalist. Her party’s toxic legacy could yet be the break-up of Britain.
However, it is not the failure of the Tories alone that is powering the nationalist surge. There has been a huge loss of trust in Labour and, according to the YouGov poll that so unnerved the British establishment, most Scots of working age now support independence. As our pro-independence blogger Jamie Maxwell has long predicted would happen, low-income Scots are abandoning Labour and falling in behind the Yes campaign. The anti-politics mood in the country at large – which the likes of Nigel Farage and Russell Brand have channelled so effectively – is also contributing to the collapsing authority of the old, established parties.
What we have been witnessing in Scotland is a nation’s democracy renewing itself, as Jason Cowley writes on page 22. The national conversation has been sustained and animated. Scots of all ages, classes and backgrounds are asking themselves fundamental questions about identity and purpose. Who are we? What kind of nation do we want to be?
Meanwhile, the debate has scarcely registered in England until these past few days – perhaps because people there are disenfranchised and have no say in an outcome that will affect all our lives. It is as if the 307-year-old Union could end with barely a shrug of indifference from the English.
Yet all of us who live in these islands should be grateful for the democratic flourishing in Scotland because the complacent and smug London elites – political, financial, media, bureaucratic – are finally being forced to take notice.
We believe that the Union of the nations of these islands is indeed worth preserving. In an age of globalisation and in a world that seems ever more dangerously unstable, we believe in the virtues and benefits of cross-border social solidarity and in the pooling of resources. We believe in the great institutions that we have built together and that define us as British: the NHS, the welfare state, the BBC, the armed forces.
Yet the British state – with its unbalanced economy, its inflated property market, its corrupt House of Lords and quasi-feudal structures of land ownership – cannot continue in its present form. The United Kingdom deserves to survive, but only if it can be reconfigured as a federal or quasi-federal state, which entails also addressing long-held English grievances.
Gordon Brown’s proposal of “home rule” for Scotland is one we welcome. But at this late stage, it feels unavoidably cynical; a bribe to stave off full independence. It also raises constitutional issues, including the status of Scottish MPs in the UK parliament and the feasibility of further devolution to Wales and Northern Ireland. That many in Westminster are only now considering these questions is further evidence of their bewildering indifference.
Even if Scotland narrowly votes No, the question of independence will inevitably recur; the unionist side has long believed that only a large, double-digit win would prevent a “neverendum”. After years of neglect, the onus will be on Westminster to prove that it deserves more than a temporary reprieve. Unless our political class demonstrates the kind of enlightened and creative statecraft that has been so lacking in recent times, the greatest multinational state in modern history remains destined for break-up.