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The Spirit of ‘45

October 12th 2014

Whatever the final result of the vote itself, the Scottish independence referendum has been a crushing and humiliating blow for the British establishment. The United Kingdom entered this campaign with a double-digit lead over separatism. Now the best the Better Together campaign can hope for is a narrow – and hollow – win by a couple of points. The polling evidence tells us that, if that is the case, it will have been pensioners’ votes for the status quo – combined with Salmond’s inability to persuade most women – that saves this 300 year-old country from dissolution. The majority of younger voters and men are convinced by the nationalist case which is why the three main UK parties have been forced to offer last-minute devolution concessions, and why this vote will not be the end of the discussion.


How did it come to this? There are a number of factors – all of which the British political elite failed to understand adequately in the run-up to these final weeks. The steady collapse of the Labour No Campaign in Scotland will be on the syllabuses of political students for many years to come. Labour – once the natural party of Government in Scotland – has caved in on itself; hindered by a lack of talent, by working class disillusionment and by its own stagnant complacency. Whilst the SNP concentrates its most effective and impressive spokespeople in Holyrood, clever Labour folk go to London. And so Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have been allowed to dominate the domestic Scottish political landscape whilst their Labour peers and potential challengers – think Jim Murphy, Douglas Alexander, Maggie Curan – are busy at Westminster. This is a profound weakness and has contributed to this close-shave that no-one predicted. The late utilisation of a serious big political beast in Gordon Brown shows up the lack of heavyweight personalities and emphasises the lack of charisma of Alistair Darling who has fronted the Better Together campaign until now.

That Scottish working class dismay is apparent in the responses to an exclusive Lodestone poll – conducted as the campaign began – which demonstrates how effectively independence has been sold as a panacea to the downtrodden and dissatisfied. A 20 year old unemployed woman from Scotland said that the one thing she would most like politicians to focus on is “making Scotland wholly independent – now!” She added, “I would like Scotland to be independent. I believe we can make it on our own. I would still like Scotland to be part of the EU.” A 49 year old fisherman from Scotland said that by 2020 he’d like Britain to be “a happier place than it is just now with Scotland an independent country.” These feelings of intense anger at the status quo, and of a sense of release and escape in the event of separation, should have been heeded earlier by the No campaign. But they took Alastair Darling’s advisors by surprise. The single most telling piece of polling in this whole process highlights the extent of the problem. Despite the intense uncertainty and near-apocalyptic warnings from centre-left economists like Paul Krugman, the Scottish people are now more worried about Scotland’s future if the result is a ‘no’ than if it is a ‘yes’. It is these factors that have created a situation where an estimated 25% of Labour voters will be supporting independence.

This cannot all be pinned on the Labour movement though. If Alex Salmond had been given the chance to design the British Prime Minister he would take on in this referendum, the result would have looked very like David Cameron. Aloof, Etonian, undeniably and quintessentially English, Cameron resembles the sort of man who only visits Scotland in order to attend a shoot. His reticence in engaging during the campaign was evidence-based, he does not poll well with Scots. But it was also damaging – because it served to further highlight the supposed gulf between Scottish and UK political cultures that so emboldens the SNP. It also ensured that the prestige of the office of Prime Minister was not utilised as a tool.

No-one knows what the result will be, but No looks set for a close win on the day. In referenda, the polls tend to slide back towards conservatism as polling day approaches. But make no mistake, we have accidentally taken this country to the brink of self-destruction and there will be consequences long into the future. It is also grimly ironic that the ‘third question’ – allowing Scots to vote for devo- max – was blocked by the Westminster Government which now advocates the measures it would have contained frantically as an alternative to independence.

The celebrated left-wing historian GDH Cole, writing in the 1930s, opens his historical analysis of 'The Common People' with the battle of Culloden in 1745. He equates the march of the Hanoverian army into the Highlands of Scotland with the steady march of modernity confronting the ideas and habits of an older world. The brutality of the Duke of Cumberland is legendary. But after that campaign, which included the massacre at Culloden no realistic threat from North of the Border challenged London – and the British state – for supremacy. It was that act of brutal and successful oppression that paved the way for Britain’s remarkable role in the world – from building the British Empire to the defeat of fascism. And it is that history which Alex Salmond now seeks to unpick and unravel – for better or for worse.

He may not succeed on the 18th, but he will have forced upon the United Kingdom an existential dilemma that our establishment has not seriously had to consider since Cumberland’s march. Many people in Northern Ireland, Wales and England-outside-London look on at Scotland’s rebellion with sadness but also there is a rebel faction that is looking on with jealousy. Because overthrowing of the historic power of Westminster, asserting independence from the Crown and from the City, has an appeal way beyond the highlands and islands of the Celtic fringe. And given, in Westminster’s state of panic, the promises of further devolution to Scotland if they accede to the No campaign’s arguments – the political elite have already ensured that the status quo is dead. The consequences of a Yes vote on the island of Ireland in particular will be unintended but destabilising. There are strong links between Scotland and Northern Irish political groups on all sides but especially with the Loyalists. On Saturday there will be a large march of the Orange Order in Edinburgh and tempers may fray. In the run-up to 2015, even if Scotland are still with us, the constitution will be at the centre of politics in a way it hasn’t really been since William and Mary stepped off the boat in 1689 and assumed the crown. Everything we presume about the British state is now up for grabs. Scary, but exhilarating.