However the vote on Thursday goes, one thing seems plain: the UK is broken. The problems that Scotland has been complaining of have dogged the UK for decades.
The most obvious problem is remoteness – the problem of London-centred government. That was a problem in the 1920s and 30s, and the centralisation of the UK since World War II has made it progressively worse. The process began with the centralised control of services and resources that were necessary in wartime; after the war, while central government gradually (and reluctantly) relinquished control of industry and markets, it retained control of resources and services that were formerly part of local government. With the reform of the Treasury in the 1950s, the super-ministries and the Heath government’s mania for administration and planning, the process of government became increasingly centralised. The legacy of that approach now is a hierarchical system of control, headed by a remote political class who think that politics is about leadership when it ought to be about dialogue.
In the process, the regions – all the regions – have been left behind. It’s not just the arrogation of control to the centre over public services; it’s been the sustained campaign to deny any part of the regions the power to borrow, to build, to take action on behalf of their population.
That is most of the problem, and the current government is not responsible for it; but it has made the situation worse. They set about imposing a model of government based on the ideological doctrines of the new right. They pretended their policy was about financial prudence and ‘austerity’ when it was about rolling back the frontiers of the state. They privatised the Royal Mail and legislated to privatise the the English NHS. They directed the bulk of the cuts to the people least able to defend themselves; it is not an accident that people are relying on street begging and food banks. And they directed a stream of poisonous propaganda at the people who were poorest and most vulnerable; a society where disabled people are spat at in the street and refugees are told to ‘go home or face arrest’. They set their faces against the solidarity that should have been the foremost argument for the Union. If there can be said to be a social compact, they’ve reneged on it.
This will be hard to remedy. It seems clear, though, that the UK – with or without Scotland – has to do things very differently in future. It needs a commitment to public services, to welfare, and the promotion of personal security. It needs to be decentralised, with economic power moving to the regions and to local areas. And it needs a written constitution (as the Scottish campaign has promised); the unwritten rules do not safeguard the powers of local government and cannot protect the vulnerable.