Salmond: Scotland’s Independence martyr

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAlex Salmond’s shock resignation in the aftermath of the independence referendum result brings an end to one of the most colourful political careers in Scottish politics.

And Salmond’s influence stretched far beyond Scotland. The Westminster press corp regarded him as one of the most astute politicians in British politics. His innate political ability exposed the paucity of the current batch of national political leaders.

Salmond’s departure, so quickly after the loss of the independence vote, came as a shock. But it is astute. By passing the baton to the next generation, he will help the nationalists regroup, and develop their tactics for the next assault on the Union. His deputy, Nicola Sturgeon, is almost certain to succeed him. She is a formidable politician, who has learned an enormous amount from this campaign. And, if anything, she wants Scottish independence more than her fallen leader did.

The gap between Yes and No was clear. But those who think the vote draws a line under this particular constitutional adventure are wrong. The fun is just beginning, and the nationalists believe time is on their side. The No voters are primarily older Scots, while Yes galvanised the young.

It is trues that the simple arithmetic of the result suggested a cut-and-dried decision to keep the status quo. As soon as the result was clear, the banks – who had threatened to flee south in the event of a Yes vote – were issuing statement saying ‘it’s business as usual’.

But it’s not business as usual. The United Kingdom has looked into the abyss and realised it is not immortal; to save his skin Cameron has over-promised powers to Scotland; Labour has lost authority in its electoral heartland, and after a poor showing on the stomp few now see Ed Miliband as a prime minister in waiting.

The Scottish Nationalists may not have won, but they have succeeded in dealing a near fatal blow to the British body politic. Alex Salmond has already banked the extra powers offered by a panicked prime minister and the other main UK party leaders. Ever the pragmatist, it will be used for extra leverage as his party continues to establish itself as the natural party of government in Scotland.

Ironically, this independence poll was a vote Salmond did not want. He would have preferred to establish the SNP’s credentials in government before going to the country on independence. He was not supposed to win the last Scottish Parliament election outright – indeed the voting system had been established to deprive parties of an absolute majority.

Minority government would have suited him well. But having been returned with a full mandate, he had no choice but to go now with the referendum. It was in his manifesto. He played it long – the No side wanted the ballot earlier in this parliament. But in his heart of hearts, Salmond must have known the timing was not right. The final result was probably as good as he could have hoped for.

Also bad for him was the timing of the YouGov poll showing a majority for Yes. Westminster mobilised and threw money and more powers at the Scots, the Yes campaign lost control of the story for a crucial couple of days, and the No voters focused on what they had to lose.

Peaking too soon is often fatal, and so it proved. Like Moses he has seen the promised land, but will never reach it himself.

Although they won the war, and you cannot dismiss the scale of the victory, the Labour-led Better Together campaign lost most of their battles. Lacklustre Alastair Darling failed the leadership test, and the No campaign only started showing passion when Labour’s fallen leader Gordon Brown entered the fray.

The loss of Glasgow, the cockpit of Labour in Scotland, to the Yes campaign bodes ill for any hope of a resurgence for the party at the next Scottish parliamentary election. Disaffected Yes voters are flocking now to the SNP.

The only party leader who emerged from the No campaign with dignity was the youthful Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, a former broadcast journalist. Her high profile may help the Tories claw their way back electorally. Yes, there are Tories in Scotland – almost half a million in the last general election.

The result has ended one constitutional crisis, but it has created another. David Cameron said the British constitution will be turned on its head in months rather than years or decades, but the pledge – made without consulting Tory backbenchers – is unravelling, and constitutional experts are already warning of the unintended consequences of his timetable. As we have seen over the weekend, English nationalists are waking up to the impact on them and their constituents.

English Tory MPs (there is only one in Scotland) find it hard to justify subsidising a socially liberal Scottish regime to their English constituents who are feeling the pinch. Free higher education, care for the elderly and free NHS prescriptions north of the border are being subsidised by the English. Northern Ireland, and its head-in-the-sand Assembly evokes a similar reaction.

Expect to see guerrilla warfare in the Commons and Lords over new constitutional programmes, a resurgence of English (rather than British) nationalism, and a Scotland disappointed once again by the pace of change – with almost half the electorate feeling they have been cheated forever of their birth-right to be a nation once again.

For all the talk of a federal UK, it is hard to see how it could function effectively with a country as large and rich as England – its population is some 54 million – alongside the minnows of Scotland (5 million), Wales (3 million) and Northern Ireland (1.8 million).

There’s one other constitutional oddity from this campaign that is worth reflection. Widening the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds has been a success. They have taken their obligations seriously, listened to the debate and made their decisions. Many voted Yes. Hopefully the disappointment of the outcome will not discourage them. There is no question in my mind that the franchise should be extended for all elections.

The underpinning principle of the Northern Ireland peace process, was John Hume’s post-nationalist doctrine: people not territory. It was a vision which promised a new way of managing our relationships with others: a turning away from the narrow nationalism of the 19th century which saw two world wars, provoked genocides across Europe, and created a world divided by walls.

Recent events in Eastern Europe suggest that nationalism has not gone away. Salmond tried to position the SNP as civic nationalists. But there was a degree of flag waving and triumphalism in this campaign that was disturbing and backward looking.

With independence now off the agenda for at least a generation, it remains to be seen whether Salmond’s successor has the intellectual and emotional capacity to become Scotland’s John Hume. Can the SNP heal the wounds of this campaign, and unite the Scottish people, in the process delivering the material rewards they promised? The alternative is unthinkable, retiring hurt and bloodied; wrapping the Saltire more tightly around their shoulders and retreating into factionalism.

By falling on his sword, Salmond has neutralised the impact of the lost referendum vote on the SNP and Nicola Sturgeon who headed up the Yes campaign, and made a martyr of himself in the process. Salmond is not without his negatives, but his speedy and unexpected resignation has garnered a fund of goodwill for him and his cause, and created another flawed hero for Scots to rally round.

A version of this article appeared in The Irish News on Saturday September 20

Unionism’s Last Stand

They’ll be playing the Sash in Edinburgh on Saturday when the Orange Order takes to the Scottish capital’s streets to oppose independence. But it may be the last hurrah for unionism. There’s a bandwagon rolling, and it’s got the word ‘Yes’ written all over it.

The end of empire, decades of out of touch government from Westminster, and the centrifugal force of devolution has taken its toll on the United Kingdom.

Some 400 years after the English and Scottish crowns were united, and 300 after the parliaments were combined, the Union is on its knees, and on September 18 Scotland’s five million voters will decide whether it should be put out of its misery.

I will be one of them – an Irishman abroad who, as a Scottish resident, has been invited to join this act of self-determination.

The politics of the Green and the Orange, so much part of my growing up and working life, is evident in Scotland too. There are warnings on the trains about the consequences of indulging in sectarian abuse; issues of Church and state are still part of the political and cultural discourse and, although they are leagues apart now, Celtic and Rangers’ competition still has its edge.

Scots today try to play down the ancient enmities that have their roots in the Presbyterian plantation of Ulster, and the mass immigration of Irish Catholics to Glasgow and its environs. But every now and then it manifests itself – like the parade in Edinburgh’s Princes Street on Saturday.

I doubt they will scare many No voters into the Yes camp, but the Orange march is still an embarrassment to those campaigning to keep Scotland in the United Kingdom – as is UKIP leader Nigel Farage’s intention come up and campaign in Scotland for a No vote. The No campaign – whose banner Better Together is increasingly taking on the tinge of irony – needs both like a hole in the head.

It has disassociated itself from UKIP and the Orange march. You know a campaign is in trouble if it is constantly distancing itself from its supporters.

Sinn Fein has been sitting this one out, conscious that it does not want to scare off those who might be willing to take a risk with an independent Scotland. Officially the party says ‘it’s up to the Scots’. But you can be sure there’s a crate of Champagne in the Sinn Fein HQ’s fridge chilling in case the vote goes for the ‘aye’ camp. The phrase ‘England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity’ still carries its potency.

Republicans know that without Scotland, the UK as we know it ceases to exist, and we can only guess at the unintended consequences for the politics of Northern Ireland. The Ulster-Scots bond is strong – but working class unionists are as distrustful of Eton-educated English Tories as are their Scottish counterparts.

If Better Together loses the vote on the 18th, it’ll not be because of the boys in bowler hats, or the lunatic fringe on the British right. It will be because the people of Scotland have lost faith in the United Kingdom’s ability to deliver the quality of life they want for themselves and their children.

And it will because Better Together has been unable to articulate a positive vision of the United Kingdom and how it can benefit the Scots.

The No campaign – made up of Labour, Liberal Democrat and Tories – is an uneasy coalition of political foes. They proved to be incapable of finding a compelling message that resonated with the electorate – emotionally or intellectually.

It’s hard to champion the Union when so many of your supporters are still sore about Thatcherism, the Poll Tax, the Miners’ Strike, the war in Iraq, and the bedroom tax.

The polls have been narrowing, with the first registering a Yes at the weekend. It’s hard to imagine any poll that has been quite so much of a game changer. That said, I suspect the likelihood remains that Scotland will vote No next week. The status quo tends to have the advantage in referendums – particularly among the ‘don’t knows’ and ‘won’t tells’.

But I wouldn’t be willing to put my money on that outcome.

In addition to the final decision of the undecided, another unknown is the extent to which the Yes campaign can mobilise those who traditionally don’t vote.

This section of the electorate, alienated from the political process, will be tempted to give London a bloody nose, and the SNP has been paying particular attention to them. It has also been courting the Labour vote who feel disenfranchised by the Conservative-dominated coalition, and who have never forgotten Maggie.

Whatever the outcome, SNP leader Alex Salmond will almost certainly emerge stronger from the vote. If he loses it will not be a shock, and he will have built a platform for the next assault.

If he wins, he will join Robert the Bruce, William Wallace and Robert Burns as one of Scotland’s heroes.

He has already transformed the political landscape of the UK, forever.

The grim reality for David Cameron and the wider unionist family is that United Kingdom, as we know it, is dead in the water. Once the independence genie has been let out of the bottle – and it has been – it cannot be put back in. Greater powers for Scotland, certain whatever the outcome; and increasing frustration with a remote and out-of-touch government in London, will lead inevitably to a break.

Salmond is well aware of his history. It is not an accident that the referendum was called in the 700th anniversary year of the Battle of Bannockburn when Robert the Bruce routed the English.

From the ramparts of Stirling Castle, the statue of Robert the Bruce looks out over central Scotland – from the monument to Braveheart William Wallace and along the River Forth as it weaves its way to Edinburgh. In the 700 years since his victory over the English, Scotland has been through tough times. It has been battered and bloodied. But today it is self-confident and has developed a strong sense of identity that transcends the kitsch Scottishness of Andy Stewart and his tartan-clad ilk. Many feel this is its time.

If the vote is No, the debate about Scotland’s future in the United Kingdom will only intensify. If the vote is Yes – everything changes. “Hope springs exulting on triumphant wing,” wrote Robert Burns. Alex Salmond will be hoping that his sense of optimism for the future carries the day.

This article first appeared in The Irish News on September 9 2014