Scotland Might Actually Do It

"Yes" is the exciting choice.

The rest of the country has just woken up to the idea that Scotland might decide next week to dissolve the U.K. A referendum on Sept. 18 will ask the question: "Should Scotland be an independent country?" For the first time, a new poll shows the "Yes" campaign slightly ahead.

Perhaps, in what little time remains before the vote, there can be a serious discussion of this choice, which is momentous for the U.K. and merely fascinating and instructive for the rest of the world. The debate up to now has been noisy, all right, but unserious. And the fault lies mainly with the pro-union side.

QuickTake Scotland's Independence

Its campaign has been defensive, narrow-minded and complacent. It left inspiration and excitement almost entirely to the "Yes" campaigners, meeting their call for independence with technical objections rather than with any comparably thrilling prospect. Prime Minister David Cameron even chose not to engage Alex Salmond, leader of the "Yes" campaign in Scotland, in televised debate, perhaps calculating that Cameron's unpopularity north of the border would hurt his own side. The concern wasn't groundless, but it was a mistake nonetheless. The survival of the U.K. is not a matter to be delegated.

Even so, until recently, the lackluster "No" campaign seemed adequate. Polls showed it comfortably ahead. The late surge in support for independence took most of the U.K., and especially its politicians in Westminster, by surprise.

Visibly alarmed, Cameron and his government are scrambling to sweeten their offer of more devolved powers, should Scots vote to preserve the union. The Labour opposition, which dreads the divorce at least as much as Cameron's Tories do, is sending extra campaigners north to press the case for the union. It's all woefully late.

Scots could be forgiven for thinking, You took us for granted once too often. And if the vote goes for independence, you can bet that will be history's verdict.

Yet Scotland would be well advised to ignore the shortcomings of the "No" campaign and think hard about where its interests truly lie. The issues that have dominated the debate so far are important but not necessarily decisive.

One example: A main bone of contention has been whether an independent Scotland would keep the pound. The "Yes" side, wishing to relieve supporters of a possible anxiety, says it would; Cameron says that can't happen. In fact, an independent Scotland, not bound to the rest of the U.K. in a fiscal union, would be better off with its own currency. But that isn't the point. Currency arrangements come and go; Scottish independence is for good. On the time scale relevant to this decision, whether Scotland gets the pound -- or how North Sea oil revenue is divided, or how the U.K.'s debts are shared -- is a short-term issue.

The union with Scotland has been one of the most successful and harmonious political mergers in the history of the world -- and Scots, far from being an inconsequential part of that success, have been disproportionately influential. If ever there's been a nation greater than the sum of its parts, it's the U.K. That is a lot to discard.

Scotland could succeed on its own. It might even be right to choose independence. But to dissolve the union out of momentary frustration, or because of grievances that could be remedied, or worst of all because a lively "Yes" campaign trounced an incompetent "No" campaign, would be a sad thing.

--Editors: Clive Crook, Michael Newman.

To contact the editor on this story:
David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net