This is really happening. The Scots could vote to end the greatest, most successful union in human history next week. Westminster has, at last, woken up to this threat and what it would mean for the United Kingdom as a whole. The result has been panic, frenetic activity and a promise to turn Scotland into part of a quasi-federal state. Such has been the speed of this offer that no one quite knows what it means for the rest of the United Kingdom.
But keeping Scotland in the Union is the order of the moment. Everything else is mere detail. The party leaders and their camp followers are even just about holding off from engaging in a pre-emptive blame game; and there is plenty of blame to go round. How did we come to this? How did we end up with our great nation on the verge of breaking up? There are several culprits. But, oddly, nationalism isn’t in the front rank.
Those out canvassing don’t report encountering more blood-and-soil types than before. Instead, they say that what is driving people to ‘yes’ is a variant of the anti-politics mood that is roiling politics across the UK. The separatists have succeeded in mobilising the scorned and the scunnered in a way that insurgent parties are trying to do south of the border too. One cabinet minister warns that Westminster wouldn’t fare any better in a referendum in England than it is in Scotland.
Those who feel left behind by the post-industrial economic order are the Scottish counterparts of the voters being wooed by Ukip in England. Everywhere, those who feel they have no stake in the current system are turning away from conventional politics. Indeed, this trend is even more dramatic in other countries. Scottish independence is a far less shocking prospect when you consider, for example, that the polls have the National Front’s Marine Le Pen beating the French President François Hollande in a run-off for the Élysée.
If there is an angry cynicism about everything that politicians say, then—ironically — politicians can get away with far more dubious assertions than before. So Alex Salmond’s audacious claims about how Scotland can keep the pound and how there will be a currency union after independence have survived the campaign because none of his opponents has the authority to blast them out of the water.
‘The problem is that the Westminster establishment is so discredited there is no-one left to tell the truth,’ explains one unionist Scot. This is compounded by the fact that when it comes to economics, few reputations have been left unscathed by the crash. A generation ago, what the chairman and senior executives of Scotland’s banks said about independence would have been listen to attentively. The notion that they might leave Edinburgh for London would have been treated with dismay. But now bankers are part of a tainted profession and the prospect of having fewer of them won’t put many people off separation.
Inside government, they are hoping that the most recent warning of the Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, who as a Canadian knows a fair bit about separatists and referendums, that a currency union is impossible will alert Scots to the fatal flaw in Salmond’s prospectus.
One of the problems for Better Together, the unionist campaign, is that it has seemed to be the political wing of the establishment. It has brought together three political parties and a host of business figures. This has enabled Salmond to turn voting ‘yes’ into the ultimate way of kicking the establishment, of making them listen to the people.
So, who is left to tell the truth? Some suggest the Queen. But she is trusted precisely because she doesn’t speak. This means that it will have to be ordinary people who do the heavy lifting, fellow Brits appealing to their brothers and sisters north of the border not to go, as Spectator readers do so movingly overleaf. Is this country not more than the sum of its politicians?
What is certain, though, is that even if Scotland votes ‘no’ we cannot go on as we are. With pensioners the group most opposed to independence, a narrow ‘no’ would be a stay of execution for the Union, not a reprieve.
Devolution has proven a disaster. It has proved to be the perfect breeding ground for the SNP. The Scottish government has enough power to claim credit for the good things but Westminster still has sufficient authority to be the bogeyman when anything goes wrong. Devolution has also meant that too few in Westminster know what is going on at Holyrood, and vice versa.
The answer must be a move to a more federal United Kingdom. But with federalism must come a far greater emphasis on promoting national identity and cohesion. As part of the renewal of its charter, some argue, the BBC should be obliged to report news from all parts of the United Kingdom on its national news bulletins. We also need to be prepared to talk more directly about what Britishness means.
Salmond claims that there will still be a ‘social union’ after independence. But the logic of his petition for divorce is that those on the other side of Hadrian’s Wall are foreigners. In this world, when a Scot looks at Anthony Hopkins, Keira Knightley or Paul McCartney they should see a foreigner: someone who holds a different passportfrom them.
It is beyond time to start calling the nationalists out on this divisive agenda. Too many on the pro-Union side have, to date, been afraid to put things in such stark terms.
The unionists have also suffered from a cultural cringe about Britishness. The ‘no’ campaign’s leadership pooh-poohed early suggestions for a pro-Union British march through Edinburgh just before the referendum for fear that it would look too like the Countryside March of 2002. This reluctance to talk about Britain and what makes it great has to stop, for it is endangering the nation.
If the Union falls next Thursday, the blame game will begin. Few in positions of power and influence at Westminster will survive it. But if the Scots vote ‘no’, it will be just the beginning of the task of crafting a new constitutional settlement and a renewed sense of patriotism.
This vote will be so close that even if they lose, the nationalists will come back for another go. When they do, the Union must have the arguments, evidence and pride to settle this matter for good.