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.”