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To escape for an hour or two the rival assertions of the politicians waging the Scottish Referendum campaign, I took the extreme step of going to talk to the people. The Central Bar in Leith occupies magnificent tiled premises at the foot of Leith Walk. I entered it at random, having taken a bus to Leith from the middle of Edinburgh. A customer assured me: “This the best pub in Edinburgh. It’s pure drinking. There’s no food.”

Another customer, a Scottish Nationalist with a mordant sense of humour, predicted with confidence that his side will lose the referendum, and said who he blames for the defeat: “The Scottish fearties will vote for a Conservative government in Scotland in perpetuity. Scotland is going to vote to remain governed by Etonian plonkers. They’re secret little bourgeois themselves. They don’t want to lose any money. The wee bawbies in the bank, that’s what it comes down to. I know the Scottish middle class. All they give a f— about is money. How much money their children will inherit.”

He spoke with the relish of a man who enjoys engaging in class warfare within Scotland, as well as against the English upper classes. It is undoubtedly the case that many Scots detest the idea of David Cameron: a number of them told me so without any prompting. The nationalist declared his “loathing of Tory filth, Etonian retards and the Queen of England”, and quoted some lines his mother used to repeat:

“Wha the de’il ha’e we gotten for a king,

But a wee wee German lairdie.”

This is the start of an old Jacobite song, directed against George I, Elector of Hanover, on his ascension to the throne in 1714, and can be heard sung here by Alastair McDonald.

But these hatreds are not quite so straightforward as they may appear. I had the impression that the nationalist enjoys loathing Cameron. As an unknown Englishman who had wandered in off the street, was asking people about their political beliefs, and was writing down their replies in a notebook, I found myself met with great good humour.

A retired newsagent, who used to have five shops, declared himself in favour of the Union: “I’m really for the United Kingdom.” But he was worried by the case recently made by defenders of the Union: “The argument in the last five days has been very negative. If you put Scots up against a wall they’ll always fight back. And that is what I feel at the moment with George Osborne, Ed Balls and Nick Clegg all ganging up against us. When push comes to shove, if you say you can’t do it, we’ll bloody do it. Six months ago nobody wanted to leave. But in the last few days, things have definitely changed. I’m sorry to say it’s the old Tory boys thing again. The Bullingdon boys are ganging up. When you see someone like Ed Balls standing with George Osborne you begin to think, what the hell is going on here. They’re going about it in the wrong way. We’re not children.”

The former newsagent spoke with regret: “I’m a Tory. There’s not many Tories in Scotland. I’m one of them. I was self-employed, I had my own business. I was for Margaret Thatcher when most people were against her. She was the best thing that happened to this country. At least you knew where you stood with her.”

A builder in paint-stained clothes said: “It’s a no vote because the numbers don’t add up. If the numbers added up I would have said yes. Because the numbers don’t add up, Scotland will be worse off.”

But a retired hand-engraver said: “I’m a bit confused with all this politics. I don’t know who’s telling lies and who’s not. Tell us the truth. I’ve got a lot of time for Margo MacDonald [fervent left-wing nationalist, victor of the Govan by-election in 1973, expelled from the SNP in 2003, now sitting in the Scottish Parliament as an independent]. It seems to me she speaks in layman’s terms. I will vote Nationalist. But who knows if truthfully I’m doing the right thing?”

A man who gave his job as laundry assistant said: “I think we’re better staying in the UK. At the end of the day, taxes are going to go up.”

Before going to the pub, I fell into conversation with a 65-year-old woman who like me was studying the books about independence in a bookshop in George Street. She said of independence: “I can’t see us being able to pull it off. I want to do the right thing, I need to vote the right way, but right now I need to learn a lot more. There’s a lot of things, stupid things, I don’t know about. I used to have two Italian Spinones [a breed of dog]. What’s going to happen with the championship shows in Scotland? Will we be treated like the Americans coming to Crufts?”

This woman could see the attractions of voting for independence: “People think it’s very patriotic and the right thing to do. It’s tempting to say anything to get out from under Cameron. He’s changed so much in the time he’s been Prime Minister. In so many photographs of him he has a glass of wine in his hand and it’s not a little one. He looks really, really jowly and he does look dissolute.”

This attack from a mild-mannered woman, who used herself to work in a bookshop, was so unexpected that I had to make sure she was still talking about Cameron. She certainly was, and went on: “I’m not inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. He does give the impression that if you haven’t been to one of the better schools you’re of no account.”

To win the referendum, Alex Salmond desperately needs to be bullied by Cameron. The leader of the Scottish National Party is like a very clever but slightly odd boy at school, who hopes to become popular by goading the authorities into treating him with ostentatious unfairness.

The dangers of doing this are so obvious that one trusts Cameron and Osborne will continue to avoid them. Between now and the referendum, to be held on 18 September, Salmond will make increasing attempts to enrage English Unionists. But his provocations will make it harder for him to present himself as a safe, steady, consensual figure, who can be trusted to surmount the difficulties of setting up and leading a newly independent nation. On the questions of whether the new country can share the pound, and whether it can belong to the European Union, Salmond looks more like a gambler, who maintains he can somehow bounce Westminster and Brussels into yielding to his demands.

There is deep sense of trepidation in Scotland. Many people are very worried about the future. As the nationalist whom I met in the pub observed, they are among other things anxious about the value of their pensions, houses and savings. They worry also whether an independent Scotland would be able to fund public services, including health and social care, without raising taxes to an intolerable level. If they are to vote yes in the referendum, they will need reassurance on these points.

Salmond’s chances of turning the referendum into a battle between downtrodden Scots and English toffs are diminished by the presence of Alistair Darling as leader of the Better Together campaign. It would be hard to think of a better embodiment of the Scottish sense of fairness and equity than this unglamorous, consensual and immensely resilient figure: a resilience he demonstrated by serving as a Cabinet minister for the whole period of the Labour government of 1997 to 2010, latterly as Chancellor of the Exchequer through the financial crisis.

Darling is this morning giving a speech in Glasgow to the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations in which he will argue that the maintenance of the UK’s social union “means we can work together to tackle inequalities and improve opportunities across the UK”.

For the past 21 years, I have been lucky enough to make frequent visits to Scotland, for my wife was born and brought up in Edinburgh, and her parents still live there. This time I revisited the Scottish National Portrait Gallery: a magnificent collection housed in a neo-gothic sandstone palace adorned with sculptures and murals.

The founder of the gallery, John Ritchie Findlay, wrote in a letter of 7 December 1882:

“It has often been remarked of Scotland that no modern country of like limited area and population has produced so many men of far more than local eminence in literature, science, art, and arms; yet Scotland has no National Portrait Gallery.”

Thanks to Findlay’s beneficence, it acquired one which opened in 1889. The building, which was recently and sympathetically renovated, conveys a romantic veneration for Scotland’s history. The entrance is flanked by statues of William Wallace and Robert Bruce, and in the lofty, colonnaded Great Hall one finds a processional frieze of 155 full-length figures, stretching back in time from Thomas Carlyle to a Stone Age axeman. Busts of great Scottish figures adorn this hall: Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, James Watt, Robert Burns.

What has become of this romantic Scottish tradition? Instead of being suppressed during the three centuries of Union, it flowered into the Scottish Enlightenment, yet now that the Union is in danger of disintegration, the tradition seems muted and uncertain. Politicians assail the voters with their rival platitudes, but are unable to raise people’s spirits. Salmond’s ploys seem to represent a narrowing, not an enlargement of the Scottish mind. But if Scotland stays in the Union, we shall need to discover also a wider idea of the United Kingdom, which does not feel like an affront to the pride of the nations within it.

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