LONDON — A sense of panic is growing in official England. Bureaucratic leaders who calmly steered Britain through 300 years of political stability are beginning to fear they have made a terrible mistake. By allowing Scotland to hold a straight “yes” or “no” referendum on independence, David Cameron is on the verge of making history as the man who broke up the United Kingdom.
The Prime Minister was always confident that Scotland would back away if presented with the opportunity to go it alone. Opinion polls up until this week suggested that, while it may have been a risky strategy, he was ultimately right. Eyebrows were raised when one opinion poll suggested otherwise on Sunday, when a second confirmed that this race was neck-and-neck London was left scrambling to save the union.
With eight days until the vote, the Scottish flag was raised above Downing Street; the Queen was urged to intervene after centuries of royal political neutrality; and the traditional Prime Minister’s Questions session was abandoned at the last minute as all three major party leaders raced to Scotland to campaign on Wednesday.
After years of what Scottish nationalists saw as patronizing indifference, Alex Salmond, Scotland’s First Minister, could scarcely contain his glee. He said the desperate, unplanned rush north was “the biggest blunder of the campaign.”
“The message of this extraordinary, last minute reaction is that the Westminster elite are in a state of absolute panic as the ground in Scotland shifts under their feet,” he said.
Even supporters of the no campaign privately concede that having Cameron in town could harm their cause. The Conservative Party has been reviled in Scotland since the days of Margaret Thatcher, whom many blame for crushing Scottish industry in the 1980s. Of the 59 MPs elected to represent Scotland in the current U.K. Parliament, only one is a Tory.
The Conservative Prime Minister acknowledged that his party wouldn’t be winning any popularity contests but he asked voters to remember that the referendum on September 18th was about far more than party politics. “Because it is an election, people think it’s like a general election,” he said. “If you are fed up with the f’ing Tories give them a kick. This is not a decision about the next five years, but the next century.”
Until now, the no campaign has focused on the potential pitfalls of independence with doom-laden warnings over currency and the economy attracting a backlash from proud Scots. The referendum has often been painted as a question of head vs. heart.
Appearing close to tears, however, Cameron said it would be “heartbreaking” if Scotland left the union. “It is your decision, it’s the Scottish people who decide, but please be in no doubt that the rest of the United Kingdom is watching, listening, holding our breath. We care passionately about this family of nations and we would really be desperately sad to see it torn apart.”
As part of this desperate bid to stave off independence, the Labour and Liberal Democrat leaders joined Cameron in announcing a timetable for delivering more powers to Scotland if they vote to stay in the United Kingdom. The nation already has its own devolved parliament, and authority over most domestic policy, but the new concessions would give Scotland even greater control over tax and spending.
Granting these powers at the last minute, without a vote from the rest of the U.K., makes a mockery of Cameron’s refusal to offer a compromise option in the referendum. Salmond had initially asked for a package of additional powers, known as “Devo max” to be included on the ballot paper. Cameron said no, reasoning that Scotland was likely to opt for greater devolution but would stop short of total independence.
He was comprehensively out-foxed by Salmond, the Scottish National Party leader, who now finds himself in a win-win position. Even if he loses the vote next week, Scotland will be granted the very powers Cameron stopped him from including in the referendum.
The criticism of Cameron’s negotiating skills don’t end there. He also allowed Scotland to push the vote back until this year, which gave the SNP enough time to win the public around. He agreed to Salmond’s unprecedented request that people as young as 16 be allowed to vote (young people are far more likely to say yes to independence), and he accepted that Scottish people in the rest of the U.K. would not be allowed to vote.
“For some stupid twatting reason Cameron negotiated away my vote. I, along with 800,000 Scots in the UK, don’t have a say,” said Armando Iannucci, the comedian and creator of Veep, a Scot who lives in London.
Despite these apparent failings at the negotiating table, the “no” campaign has held a commanding lead for most of the last two years. It has been steadily closing, however, and a second televised debate, in which Salmond performed impressively, handed the momentum to the separatists.
“The more people see the two sides together and the more they come to ‘yes,’” Marco Biagi, the SNP representative for Edinburgh Central, told The Daily Beast.
He said a swing from Labour supporters towards independence had been crucial—even though the party leaders have argued in favor of keeping the union. “A lot of people are coming over from Labour to back independence because they realize that independence is the best chance they have of getting an independent Scotland and getting a Labour Party worthy of the name,” he said.
Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, was in Scotland Wednesday arguing with his “head, heart and soul” that Scots would be better off in the U.K. “It has been said that the emotional argument lies with independence,” he said. “Not for me. Not for so many people across our country. Because our hearts lie with you… I believe we can better create a more equal, a more socially just society together than we can alone.”
While the London-based politicians have refocused on positive arguments for retaining the union after a backlash against their negativity, the “scaremongering” has continued at pace from the worlds of business and economics.
The first opinion poll to suggest a win for independence saw the pound plummet and $4 billion wiped off the stock-market value of companies with exposure to Scotland.
The German investment bank Deutsche Bank warned its clients to “be afraid, be very afraid” of the fallout from separation; Nomura, Japan’s top bank, forecast a “cataclysmic” impact.
Cities like Edinburgh and Glasgow rely heavily on the financial sector, which is expected to desert Scotland if there is a vote to become independent. Even in the Highlands, where exposure to world markets would appear less obvious, there remains a deep fear of the economic unknown.
Ian Campbell, a councilor for the Highlands in Perthshire and Kinross who has been campaigning against independence for months, told The Daily Beast that you cannot escape the economic question. “It’s sad but a lot of the estates and lodges around here which employ staff and create revenue are owned by people who live down south or their money comes from down there,” he said.
He is convinced that, in the end, economic reasoning will force Scots to reluctantly reject independence. “They’re not daft,” he said.