At its best, the independence referendum campaign in Scotland has been a reassertion of some of the things that matter most to this newspaper and its readers. The reflections and debates have felt at times like a collective reawakening, achieving a level of public engagement that had seemed to belong to history. In city and village, discussions have been well attended and vigorous. Many will remember this campaign all their lives.
Exciting as it is, though, the campaign should not be uncritically romanticised. Politics can never be like this all the time. The big issues – emotional, economic, cultural and international – have all reared their heads. Others have sometimes been dodged or caricatured. A week from now, whatever the result, there will be a lot of unhappy Scots. Overall, the campaign has breathed fresh possibility into the belief that vibrant civic society really can shape our shared life. That has been a reprimand to the established parties and media. It should not have come to this.
Inescapably, the question of national identity is near the heart of next week’s vote. Scotland’s voters must give their answer to the question – who exactly are we? Many in the modern world do not find it easy to give a single answer. Charles Kennedy’s remark that at one and the same time he is a Highlander, a Scot, a Brit and a European will have resonance for many. There can be no place today for the ugly nationalism that insists that everything is the fault of some other group, while we are different and better than them. Fortunately, that has not been an explicit part of the campaign, though a coded anti-English prejudice can lurk near the surface of Alex Salmond’s pitch. Nevertheless, socialists, greens and other groups are very much part of the yes campaign too, even though they lack the SNP’s machine. That is why the key issue is not identity but effectiveness: better apart or better together?
In any referendum on whether to choose a different path, there will inevitably be an element of profit-and-loss calculation. Early in the campaign, both sides played a bidding-war game over what would leave voters better off. More recently, that argument has been replaced by a more mature contest about larger uncertainties and calculations. It has not always been pretty. Unpopular UK politicians have appeared to finger-wag. But the pro-independence side’s habit of attacking the messenger and ignoring the message is just as unattractive.
The Bank of England governor Mark Carney underscored again this weekthat real material questions are at stake next week for the voters. Many important UK companies have now felt able to say the same. No one wants the currency and stock markets to be the final arbiters of national viability, but they cannot be ignored either. The economic union is real. An independent Scotland would be viable. But it would face hard times too. Independence would have rewards for some but costs for others.
Overall, the campaign has developed into a large political and philosophical argument rather than a cost-benefit calculation of personal advantage. Over time and on balance, the union was good for the people of these islands, not least in the shape of universal pensions and the NHS that bind us. At the same time, the union has never displaced the particularity of Scotland or England. So the real question is whether an independent Scotland would now offer a better kind of society. The claim that it could has played well for the yes side, not least because the no campaign disagrees about the kind of UK they do not want the Scots to abandon. In the Guardian’s view, the UK’s validity does not rest on monarchy or nuclear weapons. It must ultimately rest on whether the UK can supply social justice more or less reliably than independence can.
Some version of this national question faces everyone in the modern, developed world: it asks how far any nation state can choose and defend its preferred way of life from the impact of globalisation. Voters across the whole of the UK are uneasy and troubled, particularly after the poor and the ordinary, rather than the rich, have had to bear the weight of recovery from the financial crisis. Many Scots believe that independence gives them a chance of sustaining a more social democratic nation. But is this true? The hard evidence is thin. An independent Scotland would face the same problems as the UK, some of them in a more extreme form, since Scotland has a disproportionately ageing population and public spending per head is already high. Polls suggest it is a fantasy that Scots have radically more social democratic views than the rest of the UK. And the Scottish government has proposed no tax changes except cuts in corporation taxes that would cause a race to the bottom. In the end it is a false prospectus.
Does the United Kingdom, as currently constituted or as likely to evolve, offer a comparable or better opportunity for shared life to flourish? There is no easy answer to that question. The UK, with or without Scotland, needs to answer it better than it is currently doing. This requires two large commitments for which the Guardian has always stood. The first is a political economy which has the reduction of inequality and protection for the worse-off at its core. That’s no easier a matter in the continuing or reduced UK than it would be in an independent Scotland. It is the core political task facing all western societies today, and it is surely better done when risks and resources can be pooled across a larger population than a smaller one. It is thus a task better undertaken in a Britain that remains united, rather than one facing breakup. In that sense, Britain deserves another chance.
The second challenge is constitutional reform. As polling day has neared, the UK parties have been falling over each other to offer further change in Scotland. Yet Wales and England need new rights and powers too, including a form of UK federalism that guarantees that the other parts of the country cannot be overridden by England. England is not a Tory country. But that does not lessen the need for a radical new home-rule settlement involving the nations; including a new small, democratic second chamber, and genuine devolution in England. Agreeing the architecture of this is urgent work. Both of these large tasks place a great responsibility upon the Labour party in particular.
In Britain, in Europe and even in the world as a whole, we are indeed better together not better apart. Nationalism is not the answer to social injustice. For that fundamental reason, we urge Scots to vote no to independence next week. But voting no cannot be a vote against change, and there is now at last the real hope that it can be a vote for reform and decentralisation in Britain. The Scots have laid down a challenge to everyone in these islands, and even to Europe too. Better together, yes. But we must all, together, be part of a better future.