These are astonishing days in Scotland, and in the rest of the UK. The mood is unprecedented; febrile, fevered, frenzied. We are seeing and hearing developments that nobody could have foreseen, precisely because we have never been in this situation before. The Scottish Independence Referendum is now only days away. Since the weekend the campaign has taken extraordinary turns that have brought about breath-taking responses; one day in particular (Tuesday the 9th) saw shock after shock. Edinburgh First Minister Alex Salmond contributed to the drama by declaring it "the day the 'No' campaign fell apart at the seams."
What has electrified everyone is a poll in a major UK newspaper (The Sunday Times) that put clear water between Yes and No camps for the first time. The No campaign’s reaction bordered on panic. In a move thought to be without precedent, the leaders of all three main Westminster parties, joined in an uneasy pro-union alliance, have abandoned Wednesday’s weekly Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) in the House of Commons to travel to Scotland in attempts to shore up crumbling support for No. Pundits were not slow to notice that the “Better Together” leaders travelled north separately and are not actually slated to appear in Scotland together. Salmond, nationalist incumbent First Minister of the Scottish Parliament, was quick to dismiss their journey as a last-ditch attempt to keep their own jobs. UK Prime Minister Cameron told a Glasgow audience that he “loved his country more than his party” and pleaded with the Scots “not to leave us”; Labour Leader Milliband claimed that “our hearts lie with you.” Rather than yell at each other as usual in the Commons at PMQs, each has crossed the border to replace policy with emotion.
Mainstream media polling has shown, for several weeks, a steady narrowing while many observers have noted a substantial disparity between what seems to be happening on the ground—namely, enthusiastic, broadly-based and well-organised Yes support—and what the polls have been saying. It is argued that, since the Yes campaign’s considerable energy is local and online, whereas the No campaign’s chosen battleground is traditional electoral politics, the polls are not capturing the full reality. Minds are concentrated. The No side hastily announced on Monday a set of new “powers” for the Edinburgh Parliament that would, they claimed, be implemented the day following a No vote. Voters do not appear to have been convinced by this late intervention and many are asking why such an offer was not on the table before this drastic slippage in the polls. What the “new powers” are is far from clear, nor is whether any of these powers are actually new. Also, the announcement was legally dubious because postal votes have already gone out; all parties were bound not to introduce new campaign promises in these final days and weeks.
In another unprecedented event, Queen Elizabeth II, a constitutional monarch who cannot be involved in politics, was forced to announce, through her aides, that she had no wish to interfere in the referendum. A statement from Buckingham Palace to this effect followed press speculation that the monarch was privately “deeply concerned” about the possible outcome. Salmond, too, had claimed that she would be “proud” to be the head of an independent Scotland. As is usual in these late summer days, the Queen and other Windsors are at their Scottish home at Balmoral. Rumours swirl around the castle that she has been approached by several anti-independence MPS to make a stament in support of the Union and that such an astounding move, called forth by concern that the Union might break up, would not be improper. We will probably never know if issuing such a statement was seriously debated within those thick walls and turrets. What we do know is that what came from official Royal sources yesterday has never been seen, nor felt necessary, before. Thus, in attempting to keep out of the debate, the monarch has been dragged into it. The timing of the announcement of a second royal pregnancy was not enough to deflect attention from this declaration of royal neutrality.
Policy, claim and counter-claim are all slipping down the agenda as the entire campaign has transformed, in 72 hours, into a raw appeal to emotions and loyalties. The No campaign have almost entirely abandoned the previously strong assertion that the UK Parliament at Westminster has been subsidizing Scotland, now that most voters have realised that such claims are not accurate; indeed the opposite is the case. Even the persistent issue of which currency would be used in an independent Scotland has slipped out of the debate as serious questions are asked about whether the No campaign judged wisely in making it a key plank of their offer. The argument is shifting to new ground. Identity is beginning to matter once again. While England leans toward leaving the European Union, Scotland might enthusiastically head the other way, further underlining that these two proud nations are dissimilar in many ways, despite that they have much in common. Indeed, what has clearly begun to emerge is a bigger question altogether, about the fundamental nature of UK politics and the role of Westminster and London in the nation’s governance, with or without Scottish independence. Another new thing, previously unseen—in several quarters, there is new talk of federalism, a constitutional solution that almost everyone has previously dismissed out-of-hand.
Next weekend is the final weekend before Referendum Day itself, Thursday 18th. That will be a day like no other in Scottish, or indeed British, history and the intervening weekend will be just the same. With a week to go, more polls are due and there really does seem to be no other conversation in the country. In England, too, there is a surge in interest and debate as, late in the day, it begins to hit home that the Union may very well be in its last days. In this heady, energetic atmosphere, it now feels that anything is possible.
David Stewart, S.J., is America's London correspondent.