The outcome of next week’s referendum on Scottish independence is suddenly, and worryingly, unpredictable. Until a few days ago most observers took the view that, for all the sound and fury of the campaign, there was no chance of Scotland breaking from the rest of the UK. Now, nine days before the vote, complacency has been dispelled. On Sunday a YouGov opinion poll was the first to put the Yes campaign ahead. On Monday sterling slumped to a 10-month low and shares in Scottish-based banks and insurers fell sharply. In places far beyond Edinburgh and London, people are starting to take a long, hard look at what Scottish independence would mean.
Following the YouGov poll, there is also a discernible smell of panic in Westminster. Conservative party managers have begun asking Tory MPs if they would still have confidence in David Cameron if the Yes campaign wins. No less remarkably, the pro-union parties are now pledging to join forces this week to commit to handing more powers to Scotland in the event that the No vote prevails.
The Financial Times has argued the case for Scotland staying in the union. Sadly, in both Edinburgh and London the pro-union campaign has been poorly managed from the start.
It is difficult to overstate how weak Mr Cameron’s leadership and strategy have been throughout. He has never made a sustained argument for the continuation of the United Kingdom. What is now clear is that his decision in 2012 to veto a second question on the ballot paper asking Scots if they would accept further devolution was a strategic blunder. He wrongly argued that Alex Salmond, Scotland’s first minister, should not be offered the chance of a “consolation prize” if the Scots were to reject independence. Yet the consolation of extra devolution is precisely what is now being offered.
Mr Cameron and the other party leaders should exercise care as they present this last-minute proposal. It has always been reasonable to declare that there should be extra powers for Scotland if the No vote prevails. Britain is too centralised a state and there is a case for Holyrood – as well as the assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland – acquiring new rights to raise tax or finance public services. But many Scots will view the decision to make an announcement at this late stage of the campaign as an act of desperation. The fact that this offer is being unveiled after some Scots have already cast their postal votes only adds to that perception.
The pro-union parties must also beware of promising the Scots too much on devolution. Setting out a timetable and procedure for future negotiation would be fine. But the UK’s constitutional balance is complex and the granting of new powers north of the border would raise profound and difficult questions about the place of Scottish MPs at Westminster. There is a risk that a shotgun promise of devolution turns into de facto independence.
What is far more important is that Better Together and the pro-union parties hold their nerve in the final phase of campaigning. They must restate their central arguments with conviction.
The union between England and Scotland has been an immense source of stability. To unravel it now would be economically disastrous. On all the big issues – the future of the pound, North Sea oil, Scotland’s membership of the EU and Nato – there can be no guarantees.
One argument above all must be pressed home. Until now, many Scots have been under the impression that they can vote Yes as a feel-good gesture of protest against London, believing the No campaign will prevail. That is no longer the case. Every vote for independence on September 18 now risks hurling Scotland into the unknown. The Scots truly have their fate in their hands.