What is the worst outcome for First Minister Alex Salmond on the morning of 19 September? It is not just defeat in the independence referendum on which he and the SNP have staked everything. It is not even defeat by a larger than expected margin.
Quite the worst outcome, not only for the SNP leadership but for Scottish politics generally, is that the Yes battle is lost – and as most opinion polls currently indicate – by a narrow margin. A defeat narrower than 55 per cent to 45 per cent would qualify on that definition.
By signing the Edinburgh Agreement last year, Mr Salmond pledged himself to accepting the outcome of the vote. That may prove easier said than done. He does, after all, lead a party whose raison d’etre is to secure Scottish independence. It is hardly likely to go quietly into a corner and dissolve itself for a generation.
The greater problem lies with the army of passionate Yes vote campaigners who have been fighting the referendum with unsparing ferocity and fanaticism. Mr Salmond may well abide by the Edinburgh gentleman’s agreement and accept the voters’ verdict. But can he speak for those militant independence campaigners who have campaigned with a zeal that has been a distinctive feature of the campaign and which, in the view of many, has frequently crossed a boundary of acceptable behaviour?
The “ultras” are unlikely to accept a narrow defeat as a reason for abandoning a fight that has brought them unprecedented prominence and in which the possibility of defeat has been banished. It is as likely to spark a darker fanaticism: a hunt and denunciation of scapegoats followed by calls for “one more push”. The “fundies” are unlikely to revert to the more gentlemanly SNP politics that prevailed prior to 2007: working within the formal political machinery to secure what gains and advantages they can but accepting that they do not have – for now – the full mandate to pursue everything they would wish. It’s the disappearance of the words “for now” that will have consequence. What price the notable unity and discipline of the SNP in this likely circumstance?
This has been a campaign fought with an intensity unlike any other in post-war politics. It has been one marked by accusations of intimidation, abuse and bullying by “cybernats” – a large and disparate group largely outwith the control of the SNP leadership and whose unbridled zealotry has frequently embarrassed it.
The hostile reaction yesterday to JK Rowling’s £1m donation to Better Together was all too predictable. So threatening has been the atmosphere around this campaign that many, particularly those in business, have felt afraid to speak up for fear of vituperation and punishment from the uber-nationalists.
In the Scottish Parliament, senior business leaders, invited to give evidence, found themselves berated by nationalist MSPs. Earlier this year Bill Munro, the head of Barrhead Travel, was subjected to a volley of threats and abuse after he advised staff in a letter to vote “No”.
Angry nationalists let rip with calls to boycott the company and compared the entrepreneur to Robert Mugabe. The tirade of abuse included threats that the firm would go bankrupt. This is not democratic politics as we know it. A line was crossed.
A line most certainly appears to have been crossed in the treatment of Clare Lally, the mother of a disabled child who spoke against independence at a Better Together event on Monday and who found her credentials questioned by a senior special adviser and political spokesman for the Scottish government. She was, quite erroneously, said to be the daughter-in-law of Pat Lally, a former labour Lord Provost of Glasgow.
This wholly misleading attack was echoed by a prominent nationalist website and other nationalist sympathisers on social media, one of whom described her as “a liar now and forever whatever the outcome of the vote, a known Quisling and collaborator”.
If that is the language being deployed while there are still votes to be won, what will it be like in the embittered atmosphere of a narrow No vote and with the prospect of dissolution for a generation? More likely, surely, is a hunt and denunciation of scapegoats and ringing declarations to fight on with even greater ferocity.
This will pose real problems for the formal SNP. It has proved itself capable of forming a competent administration and popular administration. Ministers ranging from Nicola Sturgeon through John Swinney to Fergus Ewing are respected and have pulled in many non-independence supporters. And the party still has every prospect of winning a third Scottish parliamentary election in 2016.
But that could be put in jeopardy if voters, wearied by three years of intense independence referendum war, sense it will be a licence for “neverendum”. That would prove an enormous turn-off for many sympathisers. A political rest may not be on offer. Many will yearn for a change.
There is much that an SNP can do to move credibly out of the shadow of referendum defeat. It could inform and push the case for more devolved powers and make it difficult for the unionist parties to backslide on commitments they have made on this front. It could respond in a positive way to make use of the new tax-varying powers. And it could lead the debate on the key challenges that will snap firmly back into focus post 18 September, namely, sustaining the economic upturn, promoting investment and productivity, public policy fairness and preparing for the demographic challenges posed by an ageing population.
But the immediate aftermath may see a split in the independence camp, similar to that which Ireland experienced in the 1930s but hopefully without the appalling consequences. Many will not settle for a return to status quo ante.
This is a battle that even in defeat will profoundly affect the independence movement, where it goes from here and the manner in which it does so. An end of the politics of vituperation, bullying and abuse? Many in Scotland would welcome this on 19 September. But an army roused to a defining battle is not easily stood down.