The popular verdict on Tuesday night’s STV independence debate between Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling is that Darling “won” and Salmond “lost”; that the Yes campaign has been dealt a blow and the forces opposed to change have been strengthened.
But there is a broader view to be taken of this Clash of Giants, and it is quite different from that of the instant pundits. It is that Alex Salmond is the victor; in the longer sweep of history – the verdict that really matters – he is winning.
There have been setbacks for him in the immediate sense. The question of which currency an independent Scotland would come to adopt was always going to be the Achilles’ heel of the Yes campaign. It has been since the three main UK parties ruled out currency sharing as a negotiable option. And the Yes supporters cannot articulate a “Plan B” as this would both undermine the SNP’s belief that there would indeed be a negotiated outcome compatible with “independence” while opening it to attack on any of the other options chosen as a fall-back. The First Minister’s rout on this issue was as complete as it was inevitable.
It was equally naive of commentators to assume that Darling would be no match for Salmond. He may lack charisma. He could indeed “bore for Britain”. But this was the man whose chancellorship endured the worst Treasury baptism of fire for a century, whose dark warnings in 2008 about the vulnerability of the UK economy proved all too accurate, and who stood up to the attack dogs of his boss, Gordon Brown. His assessment of the finances of an independent Scotland may well sound equally unpalatable to many, but they are likely to prove just as accurate.
However, these points pale before the longer-term repercussions of the Scottish independence campaign. For there is a bigger picture unfolding here, and it is to be found in the way in which the political ground is shifting against political and economic centralism for greater devolution across the UK.
Even in the event of a No result on 18 September, history will show that since the SNP gained power at Holyrood in 2007, Scotland and its parliament have changed considerably. Significant new powers have been secured through the Scotland Act, and more are still to take effect. Now comes a three-party pledge for more tax and social welfare devolution post-2015.
Greater than this, Alex Salmond has catalysed a strong and widespread mood that the UK is politically and economically over-centralised and unbalanced. From the north-east to the south-west, forces for change are gathering pace and they cut across orthodox party political lines.
The regions of England, noting what Salmond has achieved for Scotland, are set to demand more devolution for their own areas – and through this, constitutional change across the UK.
This is no Pyrrhic victory. In the north-east of England – the area that voted so decisively against a regional referendum in 2004 – the mood is changing. There is a recognition that the response to a more fiscally autonomous Scotland has to be about more than countering the threat of tax competition. Scotland is already far ahead of the North on many economic development measures, yet as the Institute for Public Policy Research North noted, the gap in the institutional levers that are open to Scotland and the northern regions to develop their economies looks set to widen profoundly.
This is a key issue for the north. There is a recognition that the region needs to take a leaf out of the Scots’ book when it comes to ambition. It needs the tools to attract potential investors and to grow a thriving economy.
Meanwhile in the far south-west, devolution pressure is mounting. In January, John Pollard, leader of Cornwall Council, submitted an outstanding paper to the Fiscal Devolution to Cities and City Regions Inquiry recommending a repatriation of business rates for the county, flexibility in business rate setting, more control over investment in infrastructure and calling for facts and figures in areas such as the devolution of council tax and stamp duty. The twin objective is to stimulate economic growth and reconnect local people with public services “particularly, tax, business rates and associated cuts in services…. to develop a better understanding and greater transparency between the services people receive and the way in which these are financed. In a devolved environment, the relationship with local taxpayers is crucial to provide legitimacy to local funding and commissioning decisions”.
Impatience is a danger here. Even if a UK constitutional body is quickly set up by the winning party in the 2015 election, it would need to build evidence for effective policy covering devolution issues ranging from infrastructure determination to Air Passenger Duty. Changes would need to be sensitive to cost – an issue slightly treated by the Yes campaign and one which resulted in the defeat of previous plans for English regional assemblies.
Arguably most profound of all would be the consequences at Westminster, with changes in both the Commons and the second chamber, which has never looked more ripe for reform. Finally, changes would need to be compliant with rules on fiscal decentralisation set by the European Court of Justice. These require that devolved bodies must be separate institutions from the central state; that they can make decisions without the involvement of the central government; and that the body taking the decision must bear the consequences of it.
All this will require time and patience, but Scotland has provided the inspiration for the direction of travel. It portends a fundamental change, not only in powers for Scotland inconceivable a decade ago but in the balance of power across Britain.
That is no mean prize. And in acting as the prime mover for constitutional change potentially greater than any in the post-war period, history will show Alex Salmond in a different light: that he has indeed been a game-changer – and the winner.