The headlines are as blunt as they are bleak. "Ten days to save the United Kingdom," screamed the front page of Monday's edition of The Independent. The same message echoed on the covers of The Guardian, The Times, The Daily Telegraph and Financial Times.
The tabloid Daily Mirror outdid them all with a photograph of a worried-looking Queen. "Don't let me be last Queen of Scotland," implored the oversized text beside her.
The consternation stems from a weekend poll that showed 51 per cent of Scots say they plan to vote "yes" to independence in a referendum on Sept. 18. Suddenly, it seems very possible that the 307-year-old union between England and Scotland could be down to its final days. (If a majority of voters say "yes," Scotland would declare its independence in March, 2016, after an 18-month negotiating period.)
Though the referendum campaign has lasted for close to two years, few in London – until now – have paid it much attention. While England debated immigration, its future in the European Union, high-profile pedophilia and what to do about home-grown jihadis, Scotland's future was seen to be of such little worry that the first debate between Scottish National Party Leader Alex Salmond and No campaign chief Alistair Darling wasn't even broadcast on terrestrial TV channels in London.
That's because, until now, few believed the result would even be close. A month ago, polling by YouGov – the same company that now has the Yes side ahead (though the lead was within the poll's margin of error) – showed more than 60 per cent of decided Scots were planning to vote "no." Even as more recent polls showed support for the "yes" side drawing as close as 46 or 47 per cent, Britain's chattering classes remained convinced that there was no real danger the vote could be lost and that Great Britain was facing a far more existential threat than job-stealing Polish plumbers, or even British Muslims returning home from fighting in Iraq and Syria.
"The possibility that the United Kingdom might be headed for the history books has been complacently dismissed as unthinkable," associate editor Martin Kettle wrote in a front-page column in Monday's The Guardian. "But the message yesterday was simple and electrifying. An independent Scotland is 10 days away."
That possibility needn't have come as such a last-minute shock. Those looking closely always saw signs that Scotland's vote was likely to be a nail-biter.
Pollsters I met in Edinburgh and Glasgow this summer admitted – while the Yes side was stuck at around 45 per cent – there was a chance their numbers were wrong, because their methodology resulted in an underrepresentation of both young voters and the working class, two groups known for their strong support of the independence movement. Neither demographic was particularly likely to be hanging around a land-line at dinner hour when pollsters were calling to ask about Sept. 18. The same factors – plus the SNP's almost legendary get-out-the-vote abilities – meant no pollster predicted the SNP's majority government in the 2011 Scottish parliamentary election.
When I visited the Yes campaign headquarters on the aptly named Hope Street in Glasgow, their senior researcher smiled with a quiet confidence when I asked him how they would overcome the gap in the polls. Perhaps he knew something we didn't: Media magnate Rupert Murdoch tweeted this weekend that the SNP's internal polling had the Yes side ahead 54-46.
(My own notebook – filled with three weeks of interviews conducted this summer with a very unscientifically selected mix of Scots from Edinburgh, Glasgow and the highlands – also has more Yes supporters than No voters in it.)
How did the mighty U.K. fall to here? Much of the blame will be laid at the feet of a finger-waving No campaign, which has spent too much of the past two years lecturing Scots about all the things they'll lose if they leave the union, rather than offering them an inspiring reason to remain.
Even as Mr. Darling's prosecutorial style won him the first televised debate against Mr. Salmond – who struggled to explain what Scotland would do for a currency if the Bank of England denied his request to keep using the pound sterling after a "yes" vote – many Scots said they resented the former chancellor of the exchequer's negative message.
Mr. Salmond didn't land a knockout punch in the second debate on Aug. 26, but Scots responded to his optimistic vision of a Scotland that would be freer, wealthier and better governed if it were independent. Of those who watched, 71 per cent said they felt the SNP leader had triumphed in the clash of ideas. The upswing in the polls has followed.
Prime Minister David Cameron will also deservedly take his lumps if the Yes side triumphs (and perhaps even if the No side claws out a too-narrow victory). Mr. Cameron surprised many by agreeing to the referendum two years ago, and has since refused to either lead the No camp or debate Mr. Salmond. His job may now be on the line as a result.
Keeping Mr. Cameron in Westminster originally sounded like good strategy. The Prime Minister knows that he and his Tories are deeply unpopular in Scotland (the Conservatives won just one of Scotland's 59 seats in the last national election). Anger at his coalition government and its austerity policies is one of the biggest drivers of the Yes vote.
But Mr. Cameron's absence has left the No camp unwilling and unable to speak for the government in Westminster, making London and the absent Mr. Cameron an easy punching bag for Mr. Salmond and the SNP. The weak performance of Labour Leader Ed Milliband – whom many in both Scotland and the rest of Britain have trouble seeing as a future prime minister – is underlined by the fact many of those shifting from the undecided camp to Yes in recent weeks are long-time Labour voters.
Meanwhile, former Labour prime minister Gordon Brown – the only No side speaker capable of matching Mr. Salmond's heart-tugging addresses – has been largely left on the sidelines.
Now, at long last, it's all hands on deck. The three main parties in London – Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat – finally grasp how perilously close the end of the United Kingdom may be. They're drafting a jointly agreed package of new taxation and policy-making powers that they will present to Scots, a carrot to be delivered in the event of a No vote.
Mr. Salmond has already billed that offer "a panicky last-minute measure." And he's right.
The good news for the No side – if you can call it that – is much of what's happened in Scotland follows the curve of the 1995 referendum in Quebec, which saw the federalist side shocked into action by final-week polls that showed the "oui" side had pulled ahead 53-47. That led to the famous 100,000-strong unity rally in Montreal three days before the vote, an outpouring of affection that many believe tipped the final result back to a razor-thin "non."
It's unclear that Scots would welcome 100,000 English rallying on the streets of Edinburgh or Glasgow, but the Better Together campaign – which has focused thus far on convincing Scotland's minds – needs to make some kind of appeal to Scotland's heart.
Or else the United Kingdom might soon need a new name.