Big things do not happen for small reasons. When countries go to war it is because their vital interests clash; when a revolution takes place it is because of pent-up grievances with the state. The trigger for such large events may be fiddly and particular – a border skirmish that gets out of hand, a provocative policy by a hated regime – but the ultimate cause is deep and structural.
What is true of wars and revolutions also applies to peaceful and democratic secession. Scots will decide whether to leave the UK in a referendum on September 18, and the latest evidence suggests they might.
The Scottish nationalists have a small lead, according to a YouGov poll. Received opinion attributes this to a dry and visionless unionist campaign, which has talked up the technical hazards of independence without advancing any romantic case for Britishness.
There is exasperated whispering against Alistair Darling and Douglas Alexander, two principals of the No campaign, even from their own Labour party. This alibi doubtless makes unionists feel better. It suggests that nothing is wrong with the UK apart from its bloodless advocates.
But it will not do. If a 300-year-old union is on the edge of oblivion, this cannot be explained by “messaging” and “tone”. It is one of the vanities of the political class to overrate the importance of campaigns.
Electoral outcomes are driven by fundamentals, and the cold truth about the union is that the fundamentals binding it were weakening before Mr Alexander was born 46 years ago. The British empire, existential threats from the continent, Protestantism, the armed forces – the first two of these great adhesives have gone, the last two are not quite what they were. The substance of the union has been thinning out since 1945.
All the while Scots have become richer, and with riches come assertiveness. Scotland’s per capita income was lower than the UK average in the middle of the 20th century. It is now about the same, and that is without including oil wealth.
Scotland is better off than any region of the kingdom outside London and the south east. Britain’s commitment to the EU has waxed and waned with its own economic performance: we remained aloof from the first thrust of integration after the second world war, when we were richer than France and Germany.
As they overtook us economically, we scurried to join their project. It is natural that the Scots’ attitude to the UK would also vary with their own prosperity. The more excitable unionists sometimes talk as if the question on the ballot is “Do you think Scotland’s place in the UK has always been a mistake?”
Scots are being asked to judge the union as it is now. It is perfectly consistent to believe the UK has been a wonderful thing, but that it now wants for a raison d'être. If it did not exist, would we necessarily invent it?
Nothing is more telling than the reticence of Mr Darling’s detractors to spell out exactly how he should go about stoking people’s emotional unionism. Voters are not passive particles that react to a change of temperature by laboratory technicians. They have pre-existing beliefs and longings, and all a campaign can do is work with these.
The Yes campaign is more stirring than the No campaign – but it is pushing at a more open door. Scots are not mobilising because Alex Salmond, the nationalist first minister, has supernatural powers to move the soul, or because Edinburgh’s cognoscenti waffle about the pacifist-environmentalist socialism they take for granted that an independent Scotland would vote for.
It is more that lots of Scots, including many who will end up voting No, came into this referendum campaign well disposed to the ideal of independence. They are open to practical arguments against it but their starting point is a preference for self-government. If the No campaign has failed at anything, it is making those practical arguments stick.
Those most fervent about the union have become uncurious about how it came about and what has made it endure so well.
The UK is not an immutable fact of nature; it is a human design that can be undesigned when the circumstances that gave rise to it no longer obtain. The break-up of the union would be sad and a practical ordeal that would suck up years of work in both Westminster and Holyrood. But it would not be an aberration. Historical forces make it explicable.
The coward’s way out is to avoid dwelling on the underlying trends that have chipped away at the union for half a century, and to blame a few campaign chiefs instead. This is a lousy way of understanding what is happening in Scotland, and an even worse way of preparing for political movements to come.
Trends point to the rise of English nationalism – already here in the disguised form of the UK Independence party – and demands by London for more autonomy. Our obsession with the particular and the personal will blind us to these forces until they strike us in the face.
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