The referendum on Scottish independence is now only two months away. Opinion polls have never shown a majority of the Scottish population ready to vote for secession. And most experience around the world of referendums on constitutional issues is that as the vote approaches, the electorate moves towards the status quo.
But such a nervous reversion to the familiar has not happened in Scotland. If anything, support for independence has stabilised at about 40 per cent. The outcome will therefore depend on how reliably expressions of intention are translated into votes on the day. There is a possibility, although not a very strong one, of a Yes result for which no one either in London or in Scotland is really prepared.
Although that is just an outside chance, it is now probable that the vote for independence will be large enough to keep the issue alive. John Curtice, the Scotland-based doyen of pollsters, offers an important insight into why matters stand as they are. The key to voters’ preference, he explains, is not whether they feel a strong sense of Scottish identity; the overwhelming majority of Scots do. The question is whether they also feel a strong sense of British identity.
In that lies the source of the failure of the No campaign to make greater headway. Its tone has been predominantly negative. Gordon Brown, the former prime minister, has warned his fellow Scots to ponder the future of their pensions. Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, and Sir Nicholas Macpherson, permanent secretary to the Treasury, have been called on to express worries about currency and banking. George Robertson, a Scottish former secretary of state for defence and secretary-general of Nato, told the country independence would be “cataclysmic” for the security of the west.
But self-assertion is a common reaction to bullying, especially among Scots. The underdog resisting oppression with aggression, usually pointlessly, is a familiar theme of Scottish lore, from William Wallace to union leader Jimmy Reid’s doomed attempt in the 1970s to keep Upper Clyde Shipbuilders afloat. Scaremongering reinforces Scottish identity while undermining rather than reinforcing British identity.
The underdog resisting oppression with aggression, usually pointlessly, is a theme of Scots historical myth
So the failure of the No campaign is a failure to state powerfully what it means to be British. Perhaps that is because the leaders of that campaign have not been sure what they would say. Political leaders in France or Russia or the US – perhaps even Spain – would not encounter a similar problem. But Britishness has historically been bound up with empire and maritime dominance – both activities to which Scotland made disproportionate contributions. Now that these things have gone, it is hard to say what the multicultural United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland represents.
The usual mechanism for managing multiple identities is federation. But this is not an answer here, since England counts more than 80 per cent of the UK population and there is no real interest in establishing an English parliament. Yet without one there is no answer to the “West Lothian question”, the anomaly that allows Scottish MPs to vote on issues in England, while English MPs cannot vote on the same issues in Scotland because the relevant functions have been devolved.
This problem is aggravated by the degree to which Scotland’s centre of political gravity differs from that of the rest of the UK. In the past two decades, Scotland has not sent more than one Conservative MP to Westminster, and a likely outcome of the 2015 general election is a Labour government that would lose its majority if Scotland became independent. Prime Minister David Cameron, like Margaret Thatcher before him, appears an alien figure in Scotland. His very accent emphasises that, despite his ancestry, he comes from a different place.
It remains overwhelmingly likely that Scotland will vote in September to remain part of the union. But it is also more likely that the UK is sleepwalking towards disintegration – not in this vote but in the next. Political leaders were wrong to think they would bind the UK together through devolution, and they are probably wrong to believe giving more power to Edinburgh will now have that effect. These moves only strengthen the sense of a distinct Scottish identity. They need instead to make being British something to be proud of.