Whatever the result of the Scottish referendum, Alex Salmond will be the winner
- The Observer, Sunday 14 September 2014
About three years ago, when the London and Edinburgh governments were beginning their negotiations about the referendum, a senior member of the cabinet told me about a meeting between him and Alex Salmond.
The minister half-laughed: “Salmond really thinks he can be the father of his nation, some kind of Ataturk of Scotland.”
This remark was delivered in a tone of bafflement mixed with condescension. It was typical of the attitude that prevailed in all the UK-wide parties. They could see that the SNP leader had skilfully presided over the transformation of Scottish nationalism from romantic protest to contenders for power, but it was still inconceivable to them that he could ever achieve his party’s ultimate goal.
Scots might huff and puff their grievances about the union and the unionist parties, they might even elect nationalist governments, they might even do that twice in a row, but they would never blow the house down.
Incidentally, Scottish unionist politicians were usually as firmly of this view, if not more so, as English ones. I remember one of Labour’s Scots telling me: “The nationalists are only borrowing our voters.”
It has turned out to be terribly complacent, but at the time that attitude was understandable when the opinion pollsters and the bookies were both suggesting that the odds of the Scots voting for independence were only marginally better than the chances of Elvis being found alive in Fort William cohabitating with Dennis the Menace and the Loch Ness monster.
It was that inability to conceive the possibility that Scots would ever vote for separation that emboldened David Cameron to bring things to a head and insist on a straight yes/no question on the ballot paper, excluding the option of “devo max”, which he has now ended up pledging anyway in his desperation to save the union and his job.
If Scots do not give the answer that the prime minister anticipated when the referendum question was set, that decision will be seen as the most colossal misjudgment of his premiership. It could also very well be the end of his political career.
The Tory leader was not alone in his miscalculation. Most of his peers at Westminster under-estimated the forces powering nationalism and the man marshalling them.
Though known to like a flutter on the horses, Mr Salmond is an essentially cautious operator whose gambles are calculated.
The left of his party didn’t much like it, but it has proved to be smart to present Scots with a version of independence that sounds de-risked. One of his great campaign achievements has been to persuade a lot of Scots that they can keep everything about the union that they like or that makes them feel secure – the BBC, the NHS, the Queen, the pound – and be rid of everything they don’t like – austerity, rule from London, the bedroom tax, the Tories and the Tories. The no camp call his prospectus bogus, often with good reason, but most of Better Together’s arguments have just pinged off the SNP leader’s armour-plate of confidence and optimism.
As I observed last week, he has also been ruthless, in a way that echoes the rhetoric and tactics of Nigel Farage in England, at feeding on contemporary discontents and laying them all at the door of everyone’s favourite villain, “the Westminster elite”. His other key insight was to see that the route to a majority for independence was not to be found in a Braveheart-ish appeal to blood-and-soil. The swing constituency to win over were those Labour voters whose living standards have been stagnant for many years and whose traditional party has disappointed them. If Scotland chooses secession this week, it will be principally because a crucial segment of these voters have swung yes.
You can say – as his opponents do – that it is all very deceptive to suggest that independence is the miracle cure. You can say that it is a fantasy to suggest that a separated Scotland will be like Norway only even better. You can suspect, as I do, that the divorce negotiations will not be the amicable uncoupling of Mr Salmond’s dreams. They will be nasty, brutish and prolonged. You can predict that there will be tears if Scots vote for independence and then make the rude discovery that you can’t have your tunny cake and eat it. Should he become the first leader of an independent Scotland, in potential prospect for Mr Salmond is a wild see-saw from political ecstasy to agony. You can say all sorts of things about his tactics and his promises. You can’t say that it hasn’t worked.
What was treated as a foregone conclusion for no just a few weeks ago is now on a knife edge. Last weekend’s poll giving the edge to yes triggered frenzy at Westminster and prompted David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg to abandon prime minister’s questions to rush north to plead with Scots not to go. It can be argued that the shock poll may ultimately turn out to have saved the union by spurring the UK parties into action and flushing out warnings about the consequences of independence from major businesses. It could also have the effect of mobilising previously reluctant or complacent no voters to the polling stations. You can also argue, as the yes camp do, that a massive turn-out, boosted by people who have been off the electoral register since the poll tax, is going to help the cause of independence. As one sensible Labour figure puts it: “A lot of wise people will tell you there is a silent majority for no and they will also tell you there’s usually a late swing to safety in referendums. But it’s very difficult to poll – so who knows?”
Only this much we can assert with some confidence. Whatever the result on Thursday, Mr Salmond will be the winner. Only if the polls are sensationally wrong and independence is rejected by a large margin can he now look like a loser. Assuming that the polls are broadly in the right territory when they suggest it is extremely tight, he wins one way or the other. He wins, against his own initial expectations I suspect, if Scotland votes for independence. He wins, in a less historically dramatic but still very significant way, if Scotland votes to give the union another chance.
If Scots vote for separation, independence will have his name on it. Other personalities will have played their roles and some deep-seated, long-term forces will have ruptured the union, but the history books will record him as the “father of his country”. Whether you regard that prospect with horror, with delight or with indifference, it will be a huge political achievement. The more so for having been pulled off against the combined weight of all the major UK-wide parties and most of the establishment.
It would create a multi-headed crisis in the British state. It would set off a series of detonations underneath Mr Miliband as the Labour party contemplated the separation of the country where it was born and the elimination of about a sixth of its representation at Westminster. Mr Cameron will be in high peril of losing his premiership. If the leader of the Conservative and Unionist party loses the union, his position will be untenable in the view of significant numbers of Tory MPs from across the spectrum of their party. If he didn’t fall on his sword, the signatures would be mustered to trigger a confidence vote. Says one senior Tory: “More than enough people hate Cameron for that to happen.”
If yes loses this Thursday, Mr Salmond still wins. The nationalist movement is more potent than ever before while the UK-wide parties will have to deliver on the promises to devolve far more powers to Scotland that they have been panicked into pledging to try to save the union. “The status quo is no longer on the ballot paper,” says one senior Labour figure. Interestingly and ironically, it is the Tories who are now proposing the most radical version of devolution. Whatever is ultimately agreed, Scotland is going to get a lot more powers of self-government. Which many think was the goal Mr Salmond started out with.
This has come in such a rush that its full consequences have yet to be thought through. A very big issue, which already has Tory MPs hopping, is how England is going to react to a lopsided arrangement in which Scotland enjoys a quasi-independent status. One senior member of the cabinet worries that “the slumbering beast of English grievance will wake up”.
Even if the union wins a reprieve on Thursday, the argument is clearly not going to end there. The hope once entertained by both Mr Cameron and Mr Miliband that this referendum would put independence to bed for a generation is now for the birds. Among yes voters, even among a lot of no voters, Scots have been energised and exhilarated. Their feeling of empowerment will surely have been sharpened by the spectacle of Westminster politicians on their knees pleading with them not to go. Even if Scotland says no this time, the nationalists will be back to ask the question again.
Heads, Alex Salmond wins. Tails, he wins. In whatever currency you are using.
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