Alex Salmond has won. As I type, the balance of probability is that Scotland will vote to stay in the Union, but the effect of the Yes campaign is to make Scottish independence in 15 or 20 years virtually inevitable. If the Union survives, it does so inexorably weakened.
Well, not so fast. As Robert Colvile notes, the Yes campaign in Quebec lost by a meagre 54,288 votes out of a total of 4.6 million in 1995. One more heave would secure independence for Quebec, experts said at the time. Except it didn’t. Nineteen years on and the independence movement in Quebec has been quelled.
What does this tell us about Scotland? If its citizens vote to preserve the Union, no matter how close the margin is, then support for the Union could yet be strengthened – and it could be better placed to weather another referendum in a generation’s time.
It is true that younger votes tend to be more pro-independence. Analysis on May 2015 shows that 25 to 39-year-olds have been consistent supporters of independence: they have supported independence by a margin of between 12 and 20 points in the last three polls. Those between 16 and 24 have been much more volatile, veering from a 20-point support for independence to a six-point support for preserving the Union. (This range is partly explained by the lower sample size.) Nevertheless the trend is clear: younger voters are more inclined to support independence. As the over-65s, overwhelmingly the biggest opponents of independence, die out, this should be terrible news for the Union.
Yet perhaps not. If voters stayed as ill-disposed to the Tories as in they tend to be in their youth, then the Conservatives would have long since ceased to exist. Political views change as people age and their experiences change. (This may be less true on attitudes to immigration and the EU, as opinions about these are so intertwined with personal contact with immigrants.)
The Scottish population is ageing; as the Scottish electorate becomes older, this could help the Union survive. So the nub is whether people are inclined to be more supportive of the Union as time goes on. There are reasons why they would be: historically, older voters tend to be more resistant to change. And there is also a pragmatic reason why older voters are least inclined to plump for Yes. The current settlement in Scotland, with free healthcare for the over-65s, is particularly favourable to elderly voters.
So those who despair that the Union may survive the night but not another generation should be a little less despairing. The volatility of young voters presents an opportunity for Unionists to make their case if independence is rejected. If the No campaign clings on, it cannot waste time in extolling the Union’s virtues to younger generations.