Britons will feel a peculiar sensation on Friday morning. The union will be saved – or so the polls suggest – yet seem frailer than it ever has been. Perhaps 45 per cent of Scots or more are going to vote for secession in Thursday’s referendum, a number that outstrips all but the most grandiose expectations at the start of the campaign. Many of those voting the other way will do so out of risk-aversion rather than any emotional fealty. Had it not been for the euro crisis, which deprived nationalists of a neat answer as to which currency an independent Scotland would use, the United Kingdom would be done for.
Even the unionist side has accepted the reality of Scottish otherness. David Cameron has absented himself for most of the campaign because he has the wrong accent (English) and belongs to the wrong party (Conservative). This is simultaneously shrewd judgment by the prime minister and the ultimate proof of what a brittle thing the UK really is.
The problem is about to get worse. Not only has the union been tugged loose by this referendum, it will keep loosening the day after. All the main parties in Westminster have promised to divest more powers to Edinburgh, starting almost immediately. With all the authority of a man who scraped 29 per cent of the vote at the last general election, Gordon Brown, Mr Cameron’s predecessor, has promised “nothing less than a modern form of Scottish home rule”. The fact that he is in no official position to offer anything of the sort, and that neither the English nor the Welsh nor the Northern Irish nor parliament itself have been consulted, seems just a rumple to be ironed out in good time.
We chuckle at the French for their five attempts at a republic but this is constitutional improvisation at its most heedless. Irreversible promises to do with the governing arrangements of the UK are being thrown around as campaign bait by desperate men in the last ditch.
Their punishment will be the ordeal of having to honour them. On top of everything it already runs, Scotland is being offered the chance to vary tax rates and welfare benefits. This is not quite devolution-max – generally taken to mean autonomy over everything other than foreign affairs and defence – but then it is only a starting bid. Alex Salmond, Scotland’s nationalist first minister, will ask for more and, with the vote-share he is about to achieve, he is entitled to. The two capitals will haggle their way to devo-max or some approximation of it.
At that point, MPs representing Scottish seats in Westminster, who are overwhelmingly Labour, will be voting on legislation that scarcely affects their constituents. Anybody who thinks this will be allowed to stand does not talk to enough Tory MPs, many of whose private views on Scottish independence already range from insouciance to glee.
In short, Scottish home rule means English home rule, which in turn means a separate constitutional wrangle about what shape this should take. There may be a federal UK, as Mr Brown suggests, but England’s preponderance would leave it looking freakishly askew. The alternative is to break up England itself into self-governing regions, an old idea that usually runs into a wall of local intransigence. The northeast voted against the creation of its own assembly 10 years ago by a crushing margin. City mayors were rejected in most of the big cities outside London in 2011.
The point is not that greater devolution to Scotland is a bad idea. It is right and unavoidable. The point is that it opens vast and nearly unanswerable questions about the governance of the rest of the kingdom that politicians, in their desperation to scrape over the line on Thursday, have not thought through. The time to ponder a new settlement was the confirmation of the referendum two years ago, when devo-max could have been added as a third option on the ballot. Debate would have swirled around the meaning and implications of that middle way.
Now, it is hard to avoid the image of Mr Cameron and his peers scrawling a new constitution on the back of a panini wrapper as their trains hurtle north for a jaunty last-minute campaign stop they never expected to have to make. There must be a point at which the British traditions of amateurism and muddling through become indistinguishable from the chaotic caprice of a banana republic.
A question nags: how unionist is unionism really? When even supporters of the UK envisage gradual divergence between Edinburgh and Westminster – ever-looser union, to invert the founding text of the EU – then Mr Salmond’s point is largely made for him. Unionism used to suffer from absolutism; many of its adherents resisted the creation of a Scottish parliament long after it had become irresistible. Now it suffers from the opposite problem. It craves the legal fact of the union without any of the content. For all the fervour on both sides, the difference between nationalism and unionism is fading to vanishing point.
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