Reuniting the United Kingdom

LONDON – In the end, democracy came to the rescue. The people of Scotland voted by a comfortable margin of about 10% to remain part of the United Kingdom – not least because of the campaigning of three Labour politicians, Alastair Darling, Gordon Brown, and Jim Murphy.

At times, it seemed that the result would be much closer, or even that we British might engineer the dismemberment of our country, which for centuries has brought together four national communities: England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland. The Scots have been part of the British state for more than 300 years, at the heart of the Protestant, imperial, adventuring, outward-looking culture that forged Britain’s identity. Still, that identity has been fractured; I hope not beyond repair. In any case, things will never be quite the same again.

Now, the people of England, Wales, and Northern Ireland – not rejected, after all – must behave as well as possible to salvage something workable from the sometimes bitter and divisive arguments. We have to display magnanimity – a difficult enough virtue to practice at the best of times. Before trying to rise to this challenge, what can we learn from this walk along the cliff edge?

Despite the huge turnout on polling day in Scotland, referendums are a lamentable way of trying to settle big political issues. Those who established and developed parliamentary democracy in Britain knew this very well. Referendums are the favorite device of populists and would-be dictators. One vote on one day subsumes complex matters with one ballot question, which in any event is frequently not the question that many people actually answer. Parliamentary democracies should have nothing to do with them.