Listen to this article
The great thing about democracy is that you can change your mind. It makes space for spasms of anger as well as cool calculation. Throw out the rascals now and you can reconsider next time if the new lot come to disappoint. The referendum on Scottish independence is different. It leaves no room for buyer’s remorse. Once dissolved, the union cannot be recovered.
Travel beyond Britain’s shores and the persistent question you hear is the simplest one. Why? How can one of the world’s most successful multinational states contemplate such a wilful act of self-harm?
These overseas observers – American diplomats, European politicians, Chinese scholars – do not see a phoenix rising from the ashes of the old. They see a Scotland toying with a future of obscure irrelevance and a fractured Britain rushing to embrace decline.
I have not heard a single soul from Washington or Delhi, Brussels or Beijing suggest separation could be good for Scotland or Britain. “God forbid!” said a puzzled Sushma Swaraj, India’s foreign minister, when told this week that Scotland may indeed opt for separation.
Yet, in its way, rising support for Scottish secession fits a broader pattern. Globalisation is begetting nationalism. Exposed to the harsh winds of open markets, citizens are seeking refuge in more atavistic identities – sometimes ethnic and tribal, sometimes religious.
Alex Salmond, the leader of the Scottish National party, has reawakened the allegiance of the tribe. A state defined by its Scottishness, he is saying, will fare better alone. This is a confidence trick. But nationalists across Europe – most, it should be said, more visibly xenophobic than Mr Salmond – are selling the same delusion.
The Scots were once the adventurers and the administrators of Britain’s great imperial sweep across the globe. Now that has all gone, it is said that the glue has petrified. The truth is that it is hard to imagine a moment during the past 300 years when it would have been more foolish for the nations of Britain to separate. Prosperity and security in an age of great power competition belongs to those comfortable with multiple identities – the ones who bind themselves together in shared endeavour.
The pollsters say that the referendum outcome is too close to call. Panic in the unionist camp has seen the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats rush out plans to assure Scottish voters that a No vote next week would be followed quickly by a fresh devolution of power to the Edinburgh parliament.
The final days of the campaign thus promise to be a contest between momentum and sobriety. Mr Salmond hopes to be carried to victory by the energy and excitement of the Yes side. Unionists pray that voters will reflect – not just about the immediate risks of break-up, grave though they would be, but about the possibilities for a self-governing Scotland within the union.
Mr Salmond has the wind in his sails. The words that best describe the temper of European politics are disenchantment and distrust. The SNP leader is a creature of the establishment, but he has remade himself as the leader of an insurgency. You have to admire the political guile, if not the unabashed cynicism. As the vote approaches, the SNP has stripped off the veneer of civic nationalism to play the darker game of identity politics.
At Westminster, the recriminations have already started. If there is a Yes vote there will be plenty of blame to share around. David Cameron is first in the line of fire. Were it not for the prime minister’s lazy insouciance, Scots could be voting next week for the settlement most of them said they wanted – self-rule within the union. Instead, he insisted the referendum be a binary choice between union and secession. Now he has had to recant, offering Scotland the “devolution max” he refused to put on the ballot paper. It could be too late.
In the long term Scotland would likely prosper as an independent state. Mr Salmond, however, refuses to separate fanciful wishful thinking from economic reality. Scotland would lose the immeasurable advantages of seamless interchange – political and cultural as well as economic – with the rest of the UK.
The nationalists gloss over too the profound economic shock that would follow separation. The financial markets are already offering something of a preview. Scotland would lose much of its financial services industry overnight. Foreign investment would dry up. “It’s nothing personal,” the boss of one leading Scottish institution with plans to head south has been heard say. “Strictly business . . . We could not take the risk.”
Unionists elsewhere in the UK should admit more than a modicum of self-interest. The loss of Scotland would diminish Britain in almost every dimension one can think of. The worry runs deeper than the economic disruption and damaging loss of international clout. A vote for separation would likely nurture identity politics south of the border – the rise of English nationalism. Mr Salmond is to Scotland what Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence party, is to England. An England on its own could well quit the EU.
The hope of unionists now lies with those voters sorely tempted to throw a rock at the ancien regime, but perhaps as yet unsure of the finality of such a choice. They could do worse than ask the question posed by friends abroad. Why? A Yes to independence in the referendum is not just another cross on a ballot paper with consequences than can be revisited. Separation is forever.
Letter in response to this column:
Get alerts on Alex Salmond when a new story is published