Insight: Independence debate - unfinished business

A young women joins Yes activists as they gather in George Square on September 17, 2014 in Glasgow. Picture: Getty
A young women joins Yes activists as they gather in George Square on September 17, 2014 in Glasgow. Picture: Getty
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DAVID Cameron walked out of 10 Downing Street, a smile of relief on his face. The No campaign had prevailed in last year’s independence referendum; Cameron wasn’t the prime minister who lost the Union.

Standing at a lectern on the morning of 19 September, the Prime Minister said: “The people of Scotland have spoken. It is a clear result. They have kept our country of four nations together. Like millions of other people, I am delighted.”

No Campaigners celebrate Scotland saying no to independence. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

No Campaigners celebrate Scotland saying no to independence. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

The referendum result – 55 per cent to 45 per cent in favour of Scotland remaining part of the UK – certainly seemed decisive. Late the night before, members of the Better Together campaign were still nervous. They feared that the Yes campaign might sneak victory. Polls had been nerve-shreddingly close.

But Cameron was adamant that, in the end, victory was absolute.

“Now,” he said, “the debate has been settled for a generation, or as Alex Salmond has said, perhaps for a lifetime. So there can be no disputes, no re-runs – we have heard the settled will of the Scottish people.”

It is clear, one year on, that we had heard no such thing.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and the 56 SNP MPs after the General Election. Picture: Jane Barlow

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and the 56 SNP MPs after the General Election. Picture: Jane Barlow

Around 10 hours later, First Minister Alex Salmond, stood in front of a lectern of his own. He was in no mood to talk of settled wills.

Before his inevitable announcement that he was to stand down as leader of the SNP and, therefore, as First Minister, Salmond threw some punches at the unionists who’d robbed him of the right to declare himself the man who’d won Scotland’s independence.

“We now have the opportunity to hold Westminster’s feet to the fire on the ‘vow’ that they have made to devolve ­further meaningful power to Scotland,” he said. “This places Scotland in a very strong position.”

Defiant, Salmond concluded with a message that said nothing was settled.

The Scottish nationalists have brought the fight to David Cameron. Picture: Getty

The Scottish nationalists have brought the fight to David Cameron. Picture: Getty

“For me as a leader my time is nearly over but for Scotland the campaign continues and the dream shall never die.”

In the hours after the No campaign’s victory last year, those at the heart of it were in bullish mood. They believed that defeat for the Yes campaign would send the SNP into a period of damaging recrimination.

Speaking hours after the result was announced, a Scottish Labour insider said: “In defeat, malice; in victory, ­revenge.”

Having watched the SNP sweep 
away Labour in its traditional heartlands, the party was in the mood 
for vengeance. Labour strategists reckoned that they could capitalise on the inevitable in-fighting that would split the SNP.

Recalling the hours after the result, one No campaigner said: “During 
the campaign, there was always a tension on the Yes side between the folk who wanted a more balls-out approach to things and the folk who were more cautious.

“You had the fundamentalists who were screaming at Salmond to say that Scotland would have its own currency and his supporters who were saying he was right when he said there would be a currency union.

“Obviously, it seems ridiculous now, but we thought the nationalists would start tearing each other apart. They’ve waited 80 years for a chance of independence and they’d failed.

“We thought that we were going to start our fightback. We thought we’d be able to talk about policies instead of the constitution, but a couple of days after the result was announced, it was already obvious that the SNP weren’t going to fall apart.”

Far from falling apart, the SNP turned defeat in the referendum into dazzling success. Within days, membership of the party began rocketing, from just over 25,000 to more than 100,000.

Supporters of Scottish independence agreed with Salmond’s assessment that the dream was alive. Rather than retiring to lick wounds or engaging in a blame game, the SNP successfully sold the idea that this was simply the end of round one in a longer match.

The Labour insider said: “Salmond is clever. He played the victim card on behalf of every supporter of independence.

“It wasn’t his fault they lost. It wasn’t the total mess of a currency plan or the nonsense about automatic EU membership, it was the BBC that conned the people and the Treasury.

“He was so quick to start throwing blame at other people that there was no time for his side to consider they might have screwed up.”

The former First Minister was certainly relentless in his pursuit of those who he felt had helped stack the odds against the Yes campaign.

He was – and remains – furious with Sir Nicholas Macpherson, Permanent Secretary to the Treasury, who Salmond believes did not remain impartial during the referendum campaign.

Macpherson had supported the assertion of Tory Chancellor George Osborne – supported by Labour and the Liberal Democrats – that an independent Scotland could not join in a currency union with the UK.

Months after the referendum, in March this year, Salmond was in no mood to let things lie.

He called in a newspaper column for Sir Nicholas to resign over his actions. “Last year, by the unprecedented publication of his views to ministers on the prospects of a formal sterling union following Scottish independence, he entered into the political arena,” Salmond wrote.

Macpherson’s position was untenable. He was totally distrusted by the Scottish Government. He had been openly criticised by a cross-party Commons committee. He was unrepentant about his behaviour.

“His time is well and truly up. My advice to him is freely available and published. Do the honourable thing and resign.”

The former first minister’s fury with the BBC, in particular its outgoing political editor Nick Robinson, endures, too.

After Yes campaigners gathered outside the corporation’s Scottish headquarters during the final stages of the referendum campaign and called for Robinson’s dismissal, Salmond described the scenes as joyous.

And just last month, he returned to his theme, saying that the BBC’s coverage of the referendum was a disgrace and could be shown to be so.

Speaking after Robinson returned to work after treatment for cancer, Salmond said: “I am glad that the BBC’s Nick Robinson has been restored to health. For some months, I have said nothing at all about auld Nick because it is unfair to criticise someone who is not able to answer back.

“Now he is back. The BBC’s coverage of the Scottish referendum was a disgrace. It can be shown to be so, as was Nick’s own reporting, of which he should be both embarrassed and ashamed.”

If Salmond’s role in the aftermath of defeat was to keep the fires of righteous indignation burning, his successor Nicola Sturgeon’s was to reach out to those who had voted No.

There was, of course, her tour of the country which culminated in a huge rally in Glasgow, but when she wasn’t wowing crowds of true believers, Sturgeon was reassuring No voters that she wasn’t about to plunge the country into another divisive referendum campaign.

There would be a second referendum only when the Scottish people wanted one, she said.

Aides to the First Minister expanded on this. Sturgeon did hope to be the politician who’d lead the Yes campaign to victory, but she wasn’t even going to contemplate a second referendum until polls showed, for a sustained period, a margin of at least 60-40 per cent in ­favour.

As if the surge in support for the SNP wasn’t bad enough news for Labour, the party faced more turmoil last October when leader Johann Lamont announced her resignation.

Lamont complained that she had suffered intolerable interference from colleagues in London. Her criticism fed into the nationalist narrative that Scottish Labour was nothing more than a branch office of the UK party.

When Jim Murphy MP was elected last December as Lamont’s successor, senior Scottish Labour figures believed they had a chance to begin a fightback.

Having won the Eastwood constituency (now slightly reconfigured and known as East Renfrewshire) in 1997 from the Tories, Murphy had gone on to make the seat Labour’s safest in Scotland.

Murphy’s tour of Scotland during the referendum campaign marked him out as a key figure in the battle against nationalism and Labour colleagues reckoned he’d win back supporters from the nationalists.

A Labour source said: “Jim had brilliantly won over middle class voters in his constituency. He understands the very people who the SNP had started appealing to when they won the 2007 Holyrood election.

“It was perfectly reasonable to think that he might do better than Lamont was likely to.”

But Murphy was no match for Sturgeon, who stepped on to the UK stage during this year’s general election campaign and shone. After charming voters across the UK in a series of leaders’ debates, she led her party to a victory of which she hadn’t dared dream.

Murphy, like most of his colleagues, was swept away. By the time the votes were counted, there were 56 SNP MPs, while Labour, the Lib Dems, and the Tories had one apiece.

As the anniversary of the independence referendum approaches, the SNP’s fortunes continue to soar. Recent polls have suggested that the party will win 79 of Holyrood’s 129 seats next year.

The Labour Party, under Murphy’s successor, Kezia Dugdale, expects to 
win seats only on the regional lists. Senior figures assume that all of Scotland’s constituencies will be won by the 

A Labour insider said: “We are on our knees. All we can do is keep plugging away and hope that Sturgeon screws up. We don’t seem able to make a dent. It will be down to her to make a mess of something and she’s not the sort to do that.”

Next month, at the SNP’s autumn conference, the membership – many of whom joined the party in the aftermath of the referendum – will want to know when they’re to get a second crack.

An SNP member of long-standing said: “Those of us who’ve been around for a while are used to playing the long game but the new kids on the block are a bit more impatient.

“They’re going to want to hear that indyref 2’s on the horizon.”

So will failure to deliver it in the short term cause the SNP leader any significant problems?

“Probably not,” said this particular insider, “They are impatient but they also love Nicola. She’s a leader of people who want to be led.

“There’s discipline and loyalty in the ranks and Nicola has breathing space.

“If she was to keep on stalling, then maybe things would get difficult, but it’s only been a year and look what’s happened in that time. We’ll get there.”

The settled will of the Scottish people is, as far as the surging SNP is concerned, temporary. «

Twitter: @euanmccolm