On the train north to Edinburgh, two songs kept running through my head. The first was “Big Yellow Taxi,” Joni Mitchell’s breakup ballad with its wry warning: “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” In the past two weeks the British have finally, belatedly, realized that when they wake up tomorrow morning the “Great” in the country’s name may have already gone for good.
I’ve written about how Margaret Thatcher’s toxic policies, Tony Blair’s malign neglect and the bitter legacy of decades of deindustrialization brought Scotland, the cradle of Britain’s industrial revolution, to this point. But before the votes are counted, I want to acknowledge that whatever happens tomorrow, something has already been lost. As one commentator put it, Scotland has filed for divorce, and—even if the No campaign’s late, panicked cake-and-eat-it offer of newly devolved powers on taxes and the right to keep the current Westminster subsidy for social welfare proves sufficient to swing undecided voters—it is clear that this has not been a happy marriage.
The very terms of David Cameron’s promise—which exceeds by far the “Devo Max” he refused to allow on the ballot and which English Tories have already made it clear they resent and may well prevent him from being able to deliver—reveal the extent to which not just Scotland, but all of industrial England, has been left behind by London’s property-and-banking bubble economy.
There is a respectable argument that says the end of Britain should be celebrated, that the Empire itself was a nightmare for those on the receiving end and that any talk of “British” values or civilization is just Downton Abbey–style nostalgia. But the Scottish writer Ian Jack’s lament for the country that stood alone against fascism, and then came home to build the National Health Service and the welfare state, didn’t feel like that. I was listening to the radio yesterday and heard Alan Johnson, a former Labour cabinet minister, describe how as a young English letter-carrier he was drawn into politics by Jimmy Reid, the Communist leader of Glasgow’s dockworkers. In 1972, after the students at Glasgow voted to make him rector of the university, Reid warned that “giant monopoly companies and consortia dominate almost every branch of our economy. The men who wield effective control within these giants exercise a power over their fellow men which is frightening and is a negation of democracy.”
The result, Reid said, was “alienation,” which he defined as “the feeling of despair and hopelessness that pervades people who feel with justification that they have no real say in shaping or determining their own destinies.” It is certainly possible to imagine a campaign that said even a nationalism as benign as the one offered by the Yes campaign, with its open-to-immigrants, open-for-business embrace of anyone willing to stake their clam to a Scottish future, is still another division between people who, united, have often been on the same side in the great struggles for justice and human dignity.
But that is not the campaign we’ve had. Instead Labor’s Alistair Darling has stood shoulder to shoulder with David Cameron and Nick Clegg to warn Scots they’ll lose their jobs, their pensions—even their currency—if they opt for independence. When Ed Miliband tried to tell voters in an Edinburgh shopping center that they didn’t have to leave Britain to end Tory rule, their shouts of derision forced him to abandon his tour. Only Gordon Brown—despised south of the border as a hopeless loser—commanded enough respect from his fellow Scots to gain some traction for his impassioned plea to “let no narrow nationalism split us asunder.”
Which brings me to that other tune, the Steeleye Span version of “Parcel of Rogues,” Robert Burns’s bitter denunciation of the Scots who agreed to the 1707 Union with England. Thanks to the Darien Disaster, which saw a huge proportion of Scotland’s national wealth lost in speculation on a colony on the isthmus of Panama (the fact that the land happened to be claimed by Spain was only one of the Darien Company’s problems), eighteenth-century Scotland was practically bankrupt. Would an independent twenty-first-century Scotland share the same fate? The No campaign has assiduously cultivated such fears, in the past few days mustering an impressive parade of bank and insurance CEOs warning they’ll take their companies—and jobs—south if Yes wins. They’ve even prodded the head of Marks and Spencer to warn Scots they’ll face higher prices on tea and jam in an independent country.
All of which may be true. Certainly Alex Salmond’s fairy-tale story of a seamless transition to a land of milk, honey and oil wealth, with the Queen still smiling on the currency and where no one has to pay for Scandinavian-style social welfare, has more than a dash of wishful thinking. But if Scotland wakes up on Friday still bound to England not by solidarity or a shared vision but by fear of the higher prices or higher taxes that probably would be the cost of independence, it will be even harder to banish Burns’s scathing refrain:
“We’re bought and sold for English gold
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!”