Alex 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