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opinion

I have written a couple of times in these pages on Quebec and Scotland. On the eve of the Scottish vote, here are some thoughts prompted in part by Chantal Hebert and Jean Lapierre's book The Morning After.

That book is a series of interviews with a range of actors who were involved in the constitutional battles of the '80's and '90's. It shows, quite rightly, that there were deep anxieties and divisions on all sides, and that in the face of rapidly changing scenarios, the uncertainty as to what could or should have happened was simply massive.

How political leaders react when they appear to be ten points ahead in the polls is completely different than when momentum has suddenly shifted. Jean Chrétien, who had dismissed constitutional preoccupations when he became prime minister, was suddenly forced to declare in his final speech in Verdun that powers would be shifted to the provinces and Quebec would be recognized as a distinct society. He was on the edge, and he knew it.

David Cameron now has a similar look. His Cabinet colleagues are discovering the merits of federalism, devolution, and self government. They are begging for another chance, and are showing signs of real desperation. They may have discovered the need for change too late. They ran a bloodless campaign, and left all the emotion to the other side.

As in the Quebec vote, there are many in Scotland who feel that by voting "Yes" they are just "sending a message," and that life will continue as before, with the pound, the Queen, and all else in place. The referendum in their eyes has become a kind of national strike vote, designed to strengthen the hand of the negotiators as the national pie is divided up. But they will get far more than this, and events will have a way of taking over if the "Yes" side prevails.

But there are important differences. Quebec hardly had a "clear vote on a clear question," and Mr Cameron has made it clear he will accept a 50 per cent plus one vote. Mr Chrétien could legitimately argue that the ambiguity, and even duplicity, of the question in 1995 should not lead to the automatic break-up of the union. The Supreme Court of Canada ultimately agreed with him. On the face of it, to change the nature of a united country, its entire constitution, by a single vote just seems wrong.

The Scottish vote has no escape hatches. Its vote is binding on both sides, and, as in the case of Czechoslovakia, miscalculations as to the meaning of the divorce can end up in results that a majority in fact don't really want. But such is life.

These are the rules accepted by both sides.

The opposite of complacency should not be panic, but it is hard to see in the "No" performance this last few weeks anything that smacks of strategic confidence. In a clumsy move, Royal Bank of Scotland suddenly announces its head office could leave Edinburgh. The Bank of England starts talking, again, about the currency. Sounding like a lugubrious trustee in bankruptcy, Gordon Brown paints a picture of economic catastrophe.

My grandmother Nell Rae, born in Govan, left school at aged 12 and could cite Burns at will. She was a deeply proud Scot whose life was about "taking the human footsteps." I doubt very much if a "yes" vote would have been her choice. Like millions of Scots, she discovered the world and made Canada her home, and never saw her Scottish identity as something that would mean she was less connected to Canada, let alone Britain.

It is hard to believe that a people who can have more self government at home and access to the benefits of being an integral part of the United Kingdom at the same time, would, in the end, endorse an independence whose consequences have to be described as uncertain.

But stranger things have happened, and those who want the United Kingdom to reform and remain inclusive, and who are making the case for the "No" still have a few days to present a powerful, coherent argument that unites the head and heart. They haven't really done it yet, but this will be decided in the last few days.

So many countries will be affected by this vote. Throughout the world the idea of national and ethnic "liberation" has been simmering for generations. From Catalonia to India, from Canada to Latin America, what might have seemed a boring issue of governance in fact seizes the imagination of millions. As so often before in history, Scotland matters.