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The English tend not to take the Scottish referendum seriously. Many wish the Scots good riddance. English Tories can be especially flippant, noting that their party would stand a better chance of governing at Westminster if there were no Scottish constituencies.

Such glibness does not extend to 10 Downing Street. It would be a disaster for a Conservative prime minister to preside over the break-up of the United Kingdom. Britain would look weak and ridiculous. Having lost Ireland, then Scotland, where would the disintegration end? Sneering enemies would join up some dots to draw an unflattering picture. Britain: defeated in Basra and Helmand province, its army and navy cut to scarcely sustainable levels, its economy smaller than in 2007, clinging to an illusory special relationship with the USA and an unmerited seat on the UN Security Council, havering about European membership and now falling apart. It would overshadow our economic recovery and with it the Conservative case for re-election.

The frustrating thing for David Cameron, UK prime minister, is that although the referendum is a matter of political life or death, he must stand aside from it, or at best fight it by proxy. The Conservatives in Scotland do not have even a walk-on part in this drama. After the massacre of the last elections to the Scottish parliament, his coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, are equally irrelevant.

In the west of Scotland, where the referendum campaign will be slugged out between Scottish Nationalists and the Labour party, Conservatives are still anathema to many, associated with Margaret Thatcher and oppressive rule from London.

The biggest imaginable boost to the nationalist cause would be if its leader, Alex Salmond, could convincingly paint this as a contest between Scotland and English Tories. That explains the Scottish first minister’s insistent invitations to Mr Cameron to join in television debates.

The prime minister has not fallen for that one but has come perilously close. He dispatched William Hague, foreign secretary, to Edinburgh to argue that an independent Scotland could not count on being a member of the EU. Mr Salmond must have been delighted to see the UK government embroiling itself in the argument (and looking foolish, since it calmly countenances the UK’s departure from the EU after 2017).

Then Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, remarked in the Scottish capital that in a monetary union with England, Wales and Northern Ireland, a free Scotland’s independence would be heavily circumscribed. That intervention looked equally desperate and misfired. Those fearing to vote for independence because of the economic catastrophe that might ensue, must have been mightily relieved. However unworkable Mr Salmond’s policies might be, the BoE will be on hand to restrain an independent Scotland.

Independence would be a calamity for Labour, too. Losing all those seats in Scotland would make it harder to win future elections to Westminster. In fact, the UK would farcically elect a new parliament in May 2015, including representatives from Scotland. At some point during that parliament, Scotland would leave the union and another general election would be called. Assuming that he had become prime minister, Labour leader Ed Miliband would face an early second poll. England and Wales would face policy paralysis.

Why worry about such scenarios, given that the unionist cause enjoys a substantial lead in the opinion polls? Partly because if Scots catch the smell of fear drifting north, they may vote mischievously; and also, because we have learnt not to underestimate Mr Salmond. He is highly persuasive. In March 2011 pollsters reported a double-digit lead for Labour over the nationalists in Scotland. A few weeks later, the SNP beat Labour by nearly 14 percentage points in the constituency vote for Holyrood. That is not a record you want to bet against.

Mr Salmond is a giant among pygmies in the Scottish parliament due to the gross negligence of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. They failed to keep a major Labour party figure at Holyrood after the death in 2000 of Donald Dewar, Scotland’s inaugural first minister. Alistair Darling, who leads the Better Together campaign, has the Achilles heel of all senior Labour Scots: he chose to make his career in London.

Yet one thing about Mr Salmond has always puzzled me. Why did he want a referendum on independence with three possible answers: “yes”, “no”, or “much more devolution”? The latter would surely have attracted most Scots: all the benefits of independence with none of the risks. Was it that Mr Salmond simply thought that he could not win? Does he fret about independence, realising how difficult it would be to sustain Scotland’s massive state in the absence of English subsidy? What would be the point of his party once Scotland has gone its own way, and the English are no longer there to be blamed for all ills?

Maybe the smell of fear carries from north to south, too.

The writer is a former Conservative cabinet minister

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