“I’ve seen this happen so many times before”, one veteran left-wing activist told me in the early hours of Friday morning, as we stood in the lobby of the Emirates Arena in the east end of Glasgow. “The Labour vote descends like a mist from nowhere and disperses just as quickly.”

In the end, it was only one section of the Labour vote – the public sector “salatariat”, as the journalist Paul Mason, another of my companions at the Glasgow count, described it – that turned out for the Union. The poorest parts of Scotland – those areas in which Westminster’s failure is most conspicuous – went with the nationalists.

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For as long as I’ve been aware of books, I’ve been aware of Tom Nairn’s The Break-Up of Britain. When I was growing up, there were at least two copies – separate editions: the original from 1977 and a later volume from 1981 with a postscript on Thatcherism – lodged on my dad’s bookshelves. It was the later volume, with its distinctive black and yellow jacket design, that first caught my attention.

As I got older and began to delve into them, I was quietly thrilled to find my dad’s name – Stephen Maxwell – among those cited by Nairn, alongside Gordon Brown and Hamish Henderson, in the acknowledgements. But it wasn’t until my late teens that I really began to engage with – or properly comprehend – their contents.

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Writing in The Guardian on Monday, Owen Jones attacked the idea that English politics is split along north-south lines as a “myth” and a “distraction.” Given rates of poverty and inequality in the south of England are as high as they are in the north (higher, in some cases), “how much really divides the call centre worker in Hull from the supermarket shelf-stacker in Chelmsford?,” Jones asked.

It’s a legitimate point, and one familiar to anyone involved in the debate over Scottish independence. One of the clichés of Scottish unionism – particularly Scottish Labour unionism – is that a worker on minimum wage in Dundee has more in common with another minimum wage worker in Manchester than he or she does with a top-rate tax-payer in Edinburgh.

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Speaking in Glasgow recently, the Chancellor George Osborne said that a currency union between an independent Scotland and what remained of the UK would impose “significant constraints on [Scotland’s] economic sovereignty.”

Nationalists were quick to dismiss this warning in public, but privately they must have known that it was far from an empty threat: Osborne, armed with standard Tory prejudices about Scottish spending habits, will do what he can to limit public expenditure north of the border, whether Scotland stays part of the UK or not.

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Alex Salmond’s belief that independence will be achieved on the back of a “rising tide of expectations” is drawn from recent Scottish political history. It’s no coincidence that support for the SNP boomed in the 1970s following the discovery of oil and gas in the North Sea and then slumped in the ‘80s as the UK economy entered a severe downturn.

The near doubling of Scottish rates of poverty and unemployment during the Thatcher era sapped Scotland’s economic confidence, reinforcing the defensive and conservative instincts of the Scottish electorate. No doubt last week’s news that British economic output has begun to recover after the worst recession in living memory was greeted with the same sense of relief in Bute House as it was at the Treasury.

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