The former First Minister is hardly a flawless tipster but independence in four years can’t be ruled out says Lesley Riddoch
Has Alex Salmond done it again? At the weekend the former SNP leader kicked off a series of shows at the Edinburgh Festival with an unexpected choice of guest in Brexit Secretary David Davis and the bold claim that Scotland will be independent within four years – a prediction that runs counter to the current gloomy narrative about a terminally stalled independence movement.
Predictions of success from a senior advocate of home rule are hardly surprising. So it may seem puzzling this one made the headlines over the weekend.
But of course there are other currents running.
The former First Minister is famously a “marmite” politician (though show me a Scottish political leader who is not) and is unquestionably the author of catchy time-related predictions that have generally failed to materialise.
Free by 93 – not really. And Salmond’s description of the indyref as “a once in a generation - perhaps even a once in a lifetime opportunity” has become a stick with which to whack the continuing Yes campaign.
There are downsides to Salmond’s predictions, but there is the greater upside of focusing minds on the very near future – and that’s even more important in the doldrum days Scotland is experiencing right now. In talking about the chances of big change within the next four years Salmond is gently slapping the Yes movement and indeed the whole electorate out of its drowsy post general election trance.
Timescales, like deadlines, focus minds. And even though Brexit has left Scots feeling like mere onlookers in a political drama conducted elsewhere, that situation can and must be reversed.
Salmond’s whole purpose as First Minister and SNP leader was to convince Scots they are players not watchers; members of a nation that’s perfectly capable of playing a confident and active role within or outwith the UK - not grumbling along as a resentful and passive spectator.
He was right then and he’s right now.
The future is still all up for grabs as the tectonic plates underpinning the Union creak and shift.
A majority of Scots did indeed vote to stay in the Union, but an even larger majority voted to stay in the EU - sooner or later the incompatibility of that dual stance will be glaringly obvious, even to those whose instinct has been to support the Union through hell and high water.
Much as middle Scotland doesn’t want to be forced into choosing between a Brexit-bound Britain and an independent Scotland in Europe, the good ship Caledonia is being towed directly to that very point of departure – or submission.
Meanwhile, the wheels are steadily coming off the Brexit wagon.
The clenched-teeth grins by Chancellor Philip Hammond and International Trade Secretary Liam Fox this weekend are proof. Why did these senior cabinet members feel they had to jointly declare that a transition period will not be a “back door” to dumping Brexit? Presumably because many erstwhile opponents of EU membership are now organising for just such an outcome.
As Scottish historian Tom Devine points out: “Last year the UK had the highest growth rate in Europe; and this year the lowest. The sustained fall in sterling has pushed up inflation and the Bank of England has started to consider raising interest rates.” He suggests there is a “slowly opening window” of opportunity to ensure Brexit never happens. Scots should be at the forefront of that mission.
If you ask whether Brexit will prompt Scottish independence, folk are doubtful. But if you ask whether Scotland will still be part of the UK in 10 or 20 years, few unionist commentators can see the Union holding up that long.
Indeed, writers like Anthony Barnett suggest a more vigorous force is dismantling the British state than the restive Scots – or the tough negotiators of the EU. It is a growing sense of Englishness, released but not perfectly expressed by the Brexit vote.
In his new book, Brexit; The Lure of Greatness, Barnett argues; “Unable to exit Britain, the English did the next best thing and told the EU to ‘f-off’. It was a displacement of feelings for their own elite. English attachment to the British state is the problem. To make her Brexit work, the prime minister of England, for that is what she is, must discipline Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and subordinate them to her will.”
Such subordination may create a Celtic backlash as Scots are forced to choose which parliament really commands their loyalty.
Step back, and it does seem apparent that Scotland is on a journey. Since “we always wait too long” the journey may be more complicated and clumsy than strictly necessary. The first devolution referendum in 1979 was less than conclusive and the second decisive vote came almost twenty years later. The question is whether the same lengthy gap will be needed before Scots take the next and final step towards self-government, or whether experience and the pressure of events telescopes this intervening period.
The improved prospects of a Labour victory at the next general election may seem tasty enough to keep left-leaning Scots within the Union camp. But some Corbyn supporters see no contradiction in backing independence too. According to Cat Boyd; “If one day soon Scotland is negotiating its independence, I know who I’d prefer on the other side of the table. That’s why, I’m standing in the middle of two-way traffic, as a pro-independence Corbyn supporter.”
So will Alex Salmond be left with egg on his face in 2021 - indeed will anyone remember such detail in the meltdown we may then be facing?
Well, that’s the measure of the man. Real leadership is the ability to make a judgment call when the result isn’t in the bag. When there’s a foregone conclusion, very little courage is needed to steer a path. But since little is certain these days, decision makers can seem paralysed, immersing themselves in a world of meetings, consultations and policy advisers to better divine what lies ahead.
Yet one thing is clear. What approaches is an English-shaped Brexit not supported by the outlook of the Scottish Parliament, the shape of our civic institutions, our voting record over decades and our clearly stated preference for remaining part of the EU.
Is that enough to push independence over the line by 2021? It might well be.