Back then, David Cameron thought that this stressful chapter had closed. It may have been a 45/55 margin, far tighter than most had expected, but as every football fan knows a 4-3 win is still a win. The vote in Quebec was very close – 49 per cent ‘yes’ – and the Canadian federal government managed to put an end to the debate. Cameron thought so too. He thought wrong.
The success of the Scottish National Party now stands as perhaps the most extraordinary political phenomena in Europe. Defeat seemed to only make the party stronger: in the six months which followed the referendum, 1 in every 50 Scots joined the SNP. Its success has come chiefly due to its destruction – and I use the word advisedly – of the Labour Party in Scotland. Its support is in freefall. There are 59 constituencies in Scotland; at the time of writing, polls suggest the SNP will take 50 of them.
Should this happen, then the political map of Britain would change – utterly. It would be harder than ever to talk about a United Kingdom. It would be a country where the Tories represent the south, the nationalists rule the north and Labour is stuck in the middle. Somehow the great Battle for Britain, which was intended to put an end to the national question through a referendum, has given the separatist movement more energy than ever.
Like many splendidly patriotic Scots, I live and work in London – so I have been watching with alarm and incomprehension as Scotland seems swept by a cause that was, not so very long ago, regarded as as one for cranks. There are many countries who can divorce by citing irreconcilable differences: the Czechs and the Slovaks spoke separate languages. Ukraine is split between Europhiles and Slavopiles. The former Yugoslavia was a hotchpotch of nations that ought never to have been welded together. But Scotland and England are united by values, the language of Shakespeare, a Queen and a shared history. Why the tension?
The answer lies in the creation of the Scottish Parliament, designed to kill nationalists ‘stone dead’ (in the words of George Robertson, one of its architects). Instead, it created a separate political weather system in Scotland dominated by a parliament were the nationalist sent their A-Team and everyone else sent their B-Team. Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon, two of the most professional and accomplished politicians that Scotland has ever produced, have come to be giants in a parliament of pygmies. They have reinvented modern politics, at a time when their rivals are in decay.
The SNP sells a positive, almost Panglossian vision of Scotland asking voters to imagine how the country could be if things started afresh. I can understand its appeal because I succumbed to it twenty years ago when the Scottish Parliament was being advocated. We Scots have always prided ourselves on our intellectual capital; we invented everything from television set to the Bank of England. Surely a parliament in Edinburgh would embarrass Westminster with its forward-thinking ideas? If we broke from the old, failed system then think what could be achieved with a new start! So fan my logic.
Instead, devolution was used to revive 1970s-style statism and the new governments seemed intent on building a brand new East Germany. As a result you don’t need to imagine hat health and education would look like in an independent Scotand – such powers have been devolved to Edinburgh for 15 years. And in that time, the Scottish schools and hospitals have fared worse – as bureaucrats tightened their control over the system. Even the country’s police, formerly split into different constabularies, are merged under a central bureaucracy. Home rule has not results in better government.
And this is before one considers the economic case, which has collapsed along with the oil price. North Sea Oil revenues have hit the floor, and given that such money was supposed to bankroll an independent Scotland, the logic behind the case for separation collapses. “But logic doesn’t have anything to do with it,” explains one senior Conservative. “Not any more”. The SNP are pulling heart strings, and it works – especially at a time where so many are disenchanted with politics.
The unionist parties – Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives – have been pushing relentless negativity. This won the referendum – just. But they lost the overall argument. You cannot scare a country into staying in the union: you need to make and win the argument. For generations, Scottish unionists have thought that the case for Britain was so strong that it did not need to be made. We shaped an empire together, won two world wars together, forged a modern world together.
This confidence led to complacency. First came the 1997 Tory collapse in Scotland, which seemed to pass hegemony to Labour. After ten years of winning without fighting, Labour became lazy. The party apparatus started promoting its own apparatchiks; former chauffeurs and bag-carriers inherited safe seats. Upo the death of Donald Dewar, the former First Minister of Scotland, his former office assistant stood in his place. Labour could have been seeking the talent of tomorrow: instead, it wanted obedient yes-men who could be relied upon to vote the right way.
In so much of Scotland, Labour votes were weighed rather than counted – so the party didn’t bother with canvassing, or registering voters, or looking after a local constituency party. Scottish Labour’s strategy was to say ‘we hate the Tories’ – and this worked in the 1990s. The message was wearing a bit thin in te noughties. After 2010, it lost its appeal completely: Scots stopped thinking of the Conservatism as a giant evil. Voting Tory is now seen more like a harmless perversion, roughly the same as cross-dressing or cricket. Tory-hating was not enough to sustain Labour. But this wasn’t apparent until the referendum campaign, when Scottish Labour voters defected en masse to the ‘yes’ campaign, lured by the energetic and effective message from the nationalists.
The wholesale defection of Scottish Labour into the arms of the SNP is quite extraordinary – even now, the separatists are fantasizing about governing with Labour in coalition. Its officials now talk about “the opportunity to restore the NHS in England to what it always was” – in other words, reverse the pro-market reform of the Blair years. That’s the theory, at least. But the alliance the SNP now need is between Nicola Sturgeon, its new leader, and David Cameron. She has ruled out any coalition with the perfidious Tories, yet still needs him more than any other politician in Britain. If she can choose whom to enstool in No10 in May, she’d choose him.
The only goal that matters to the SNP is independence – and that means having a good reason to moan about England. Without a villain, Ms Sturgeon will not have much of pantomime so she needs Cameron, the Old Etonian with a Oxford First, as Prime Minister. Ideally in coalition with Nigel Farage. And most of all, she need him to hold his in-or-out referendum on the European Union. If England votes to leave and Scotland to stay, it would induce the constitutional crisis that the SNP needs. A new referendum could then be called. This is the new roadmap to independence.
This time last year it seemed as if Ed Miliband would win the UK general election for a simple reason: Ukip had split the right and the left was united. But now the SNP has split the left, so both parties are fractured. They are blowing poison darts at each other, but neither seems able to win new voters. The way things are going, Brits don’t really need to turn up on voting day – the new Prime Minister will be decided in Edinburgh.
There are various options. Some nationalists talk about the case for putting Ed Miliband in power. During the referendum, some argued the problem was Tory rule (the party as just one seat in Scotland) and that all would be well if Labour was to win again. But if Ed Miliband takes power, and his government is an unalloyed disaster, then the SNP will be able to say that no Westminster government will work. Either way, the SNP – but definition – has no interest in the smooth running of the UK government. It is a party of saboteurs, waiting for the right time to strike.
Had the referendum ended in a 65/35 vote, as the polls indicated for most of the campaign, the SNP’s cause would probably have died. But their winning 45 per cent of the vote persuaded them that they were within touching distance of victory. The nation lists are now drawing comparisons not with the 1995 Quebec referendum, but the one in 1980 where the separatists lost with just 40 per cent of the vote – but kept enough momentum to sustain their campaign. To many nationalists, the question is when, not whether, a second referendum will be called.
It’s unlikely that Sturgeon would want to hold one until independence had a clear majority of voters, around 60 per cent: losing a second referendum would close the issue down forever. But even now, support for independence is at an historic high.
“You talked of Scotland as a lost cause,” John Steinbeck once wrote to Mrs John F Kennedy. “That is not true. Scotland is an unwon cause.” The same can be said for the union: the battle was not won last September. It merely entered a new phase, which will soon be characterized by Scotland being represented in Westminster by dozens of MPs dedicated to the partition of the island. Whoever wins the election will have many issues to confront, from austerity to Europe. And to that list of worries we must now add the survival of Britain itself.