Michael Kelly: Bad year for SNP’s independence hopes

Alex Salmond launches the consultation for a referendum on independence
Alex Salmond launches the consultation for a referendum on independence
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FATAL errors made by Alex Salmond this year have ruined his chances of a 2014 referendum victory, writes Michael Kelly

The year of reversal for the cause of independence – that’s how 2012 will be recorded in footnotes to the political history of the United Kingdom.

Indeed, the unravelling of the case for separation and the destruction of its leading proponent has the structure and inevitability of a Greek tragedy. Irreversible changes were brought about, as is demanded in tragedy, by a combination of fate and an error on the part of the hero. Fate handed the SNP a majority in the Scottish Parliament. The mistake was Alex Salmond’s refusal to admit the weaknesses in the case the SNP had constructed for breaking up the UK and to try to bluff his way to 2014.

As long as the SNP ran the devolved assembly as a minority it could concentrate on what it proved good at: demonstrating that it could run an efficient administration through competent ministers. Admittedly, it did that by doing very little indeed. In this scenario Salmond was able to utilise his superior strategic skills. During First Minister’s Questions and in televised interviews he demonstrated his debating prowess and his empathy with what Scottish voters were thinking. That, combined with the discredited performance of Gordon Brown both as chancellor and as a weak prime minister triggering the fall from power of the Labour Party nationally, allowed Salmond to be portrayed as the greatest Scots politician of his era.

As a reward, fate delivered the SNP an overwhelming victory in the 2011 elections for Holyrood. And a referendum became inevitable. Before then, Salmond had no appetite for one. Remember back in 2008 when Wendy Alexander was Labour leader in Holyrood and she offered to back an early referendum? Salmond rejected her offer, promising to stick to his manifesto pledge of a referendum in 2010. That date fell by the wayside and another manifesto pledge took its place: to have the vote during this parliamentary session. It was in the last days of the 2011 election campaign, when an SNP victory looked assured, that the date was pushed back in the parliamentary calendar, ending up where it now stands in 2014 – as far away as was consistent with keeping it credible.

Salmond rejected Alexander’s offer for good reason. Given his political astuteness – and I repeat this compliment without a hint of irony – he knew he couldn’t win it. He knew that going into the 2011 election and he knows it now. The only prospect of persuading Scots to say Yes is to have a sustained period of minority SNP government in Scotland as the Tories go on to win a second term. This time, on their own, the Tories would govern at Westminster, the SNP would hope, in a way inimical to Scotland’s interests. Any Tory decision to change the UK’s relationship with Europe would signal the moment to strike.

But things are not working out as Salmond would have hoped. The setting of a firm, unchangeable date for the referendum triggered 12 months of attack after attack on the arguments in favour of independence. Its advocates are still unable to repel them. So weak has been the separatist cases on each issue of substance – the currency, control of monetary and fiscal policy, defence and Scotland’s place in the European Union – that the SNP has put itself in a laughable position.

Its reaction to any reasoned argument against independence is now either denial, diversion or deceit. It denies facts, such as the political reality that the UK government would simply not allow a foreign state any say on its monetary policy. When it is not denying, it is diverting. The reality of the bad news it received from Brussels over Scotland having to apply for EU membership was ignored with a spurious argument of whether the letter from the European Commission to the House of Lords had or had not been sent. When attention could not be diverted, the public were just misled – such as the long-standing impression that the Scottish voters were allowed to believe that formal legal advice on the European position had been sought and given.

Any other democratic parliament would have censured its chief executive over this issue, especially as the deception was clearly exposed in the fatal BBC television Andrew Neil interview when Salmond clearly said “We have, yes” in direct response to a direct question about legal advice on Europe. But the SNP way is autocratic. It pulls the strings of a puppet of a presiding officer at Holyrood. It dominates the committees charged with supervising the executive. It pays lip service to public consultation but ignores unwelcome outcomes, such as the significant adverse reaction to its proposals for gay marriage. A separate Scotland would be a bleak totalitarian place if one adds the justice secretary’s contempt for the judiciary.

It is this suspicious and defensive mindset that prevented the SNP from reacting with honesty to the various serious arguments made against it. It could have argued that for Scotland to have to negotiate terms of entry to Europe offered an opportunity to design a package designed for this country alone. It could have argued that by the time Scotland was required to enter the euro, that currency would have solved its problems and joining it would allow Scotland to break away from the policies enforced on it by the Treasury and the Bank of England. But it didn’t dare because it doesn’t trust the Scottish people to accept the reality of independence: that Scotland will be a different, foreign state fenced off by border controls. Most countries welcome these as signs of independence. The SNP tries to convince us that the new Scotland will be the same, only better – dependent independence.

That is the fatal flaw, the fundamental inconsistency that has ensured the failure of the SNP’s only real policy. Fat ladies don’t sing in tragedies, but the chorus has begun to lament the fall of the hero. It’s all over bar the shouting. After the referendum defeat, the SNP under Nicola Sturgeon will revert, as she has already outlined, to a party of good government pledged to social justice within a devolved state.