The Boudicca in front on the Houses of Parliament.

From the red benches of the House of Lords to the most exclusive groves of academe, the British establishment has spent this week confronting the hitherto unthinkable: the break-up of a union that has long defined its view of the world.

Seldom can a single opinion poll have reverberated through the ranks of the nation’s elite as loudly as last Sunday’s news that the Yes campaign in the Scottish referendum had edged ahead. The poll prompted David Cameron, prime minister, to issue a call to action to UK business chiefs at a reception at 10 Downing Street on Monday night, as well as the sudden journey north by the leaders of all three main parties on Wednesday.

Most of the establishment are reluctant to speak out in public for fear of offending the principle of self-determination. Privately, however, diplomats scowl at the thought of representing a diminished Britain; museum directors fret over the prospect of having their collections broken up, with prized artefacts taken north of the border as emblems of an independent Scotland; and civil servants mutter about warnings that went unheeded.

Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, reportedly told a Heritage Lottery Fund event earlier this year that as a “private citizen” he was opposed to independence. A leading scientist from overseas who leads a large research team at an English university with extensive links to Scottish institutions said: “If Scotland leaves the UK, I’ll probably leave the country – and if Britain leaves the EU I’ll certainly leave.”

Lord Hennessy, professor of contemporary British history at Queen Mary University of London, who has chronicled and analysed the doings of politicians and civil servants for decades, describes the narrowing of the opinion polls as “an electromagnetic pulse” that has belatedly awoken the UK’s political and administrative classes. Not only has it scared some of them stiff, it has prompted a search for scapegoats. Anger is growing that those whose responsibility it was to deliver the “right” answer have brought the UK perilously close to delivering the “wrong” one.

For some Mr Cameron is to blame for mishandling the referendum process. For others, it is the fault of a complacent civil service that failed to foresee the earthquake now in prospect.

Giving evidence to the public administration committee this week, Sir Jeremy Heywood, cabinet secretary and head of the civil service, reiterated that no contingency planning had been undertaken by the UK government for a Yes victory and the subsequent break-up of the union.

Lord Hennessy said the decision not to prepare for independence had been taken out of fears such plans would leak and hand ammunition to the Scottish National party. In order to avoid “one day’s [bad] headlines” no blueprint had been worked out for the potential “unravelling of a kingdom”, he said.

The charge sheet against Mr Cameron includes his decision that only “full independence” should be placed on the ballot paper, rather than an additional “devo max” option, and giving the vote to schoolchildren but not to Scots living beyond the country’s borders.

Lord Lester, a Liberal Democrat peer and barrister who was special adviser on constitutional reform to Gordon Brown when he was prime minister, said: “It was Cameron’s failure to allow that second question [on the ballot] – and Labour’s to press for it – that has led to this situation. There is only one question and it is not the right question – and it is an extremely dangerous question. If answered Yes, it is going to lead to the weakening of Scotland and the UK.”

Some of the criticism comes from within Whitehall itself. Veterans whisper the prime minister failed to appreciate the potential consequences of his referendum offer. Warnings were ignored, they claim, as Mr Cameron and key ministers elevated “gut political instinct” above the more cautious advice of the senior civil service.

Others, however, believe Whitehall was also too slow to wake up to the possibility of a Yes victory. One former permanent secretary said soundings among former colleagues suggested that, until recently, the civil service had been as complacent as the politicians about the outcome. Others report a sense of near-panic this week among officials who had assumed that No was virtually a foregone conclusion.

For Lord Hennessy, any dismembering of the UK will take Britain into territory for which it remains utterly unready, for all its past experience in colonial handovers. “This is not the extended family, as the empire used to be called, it is the immediate family,” he said. “This is flesh of our flesh. It is not severance in an ‘imperial disposal’ way; it is rending.”

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