Two years ago today, Alex Salmond was casting his vote for Scottish independence in a referendum he called a “once in a generation” event. At some point over the next two years, he believes he will be doing so again.
It says much about the pace of political change over the past two years that the former first minister, who lost the independence referendum unequivocally after 55 per cent of the population opted to remain in the UK, now appears to be challenging his successor to call a second vote.
Although SNP sources have claimed that Nicola Sturgeon will not call indyref2 until support for independence has sat at 60 per cent for a “sustained” period, Salmond suggests that she should act sooner rather than later. He cites the fact that all seven polls of support for independence since the Brexit vote in June have put it higher than the 45 per cent result in 2014 and he offers Sturgeon a reminder that he called indyref1 in 2012 when support for breaking away from the UK was just 27 per cent.
“The First Minister, believe me, knows her own mind on these matters and it’s her judgement and her choice,” he tells Scotland on Sunday in an interview conducted in the back of a taxi stuck in London traffic.
“The only observation I would make – my suspicion about these matters – is that if I was willing to call an independence referendum in 2012 for 2014 on 27 per cent support, I’m not certain that Nicola will be too concerned about starting off with an average of 48 per cent.”
A great deal has happened since 18 September, 2014.
The morning after the Scottish referendum, David Cameron stood on steps of Downing Street to link new powers for Scotland with a push towards English votes for English laws, while in Edinburgh, Salmond was resigning as first minister.
Last Monday, it was Cameron who brought an end to his political career, having already quit No 10 after losing his gamble with Britain’s place in the EU. The intervening period has seen an SNP general election landslide, the collapse of Labour in Scotland, as well as Brexit.
Successive political earthquakes have toppled political orthodoxies before the rubble of the last shock has had time to settle. If Salmond’s prediction is correct, the next two years will be just as dramatic.
Having led one referendum and campaigned in another, Salmond says “the timing, the question, and the context in which you set a referendum” are the crucial battlegrounds. “In the negotiations in 2012, I gained control of the timing, the context and the question of the referendum,” he says. “In the much easier context of the run-up to the referendum in 2016, [Cameron] lost control of all those things.”
The difficulty is that on independence, Salmond’s successor as first minister isn’t entirely in control of the timing, either. Since taking office, Sturgeon’s relationship with a second referendum has resembled that of a big-top ringleader and a circus lion: eager to put on the spectacle the roaring crowds want to see, but conscious that if she gets it wrong, she’ll get eaten.
Salmond, on the other hand, was positively gung-ho the day after the Brexit result. “This changes everything,” was his mantra as he toured television studios in the small hours of 24 June.
But lose a second referendum and Scottish independence could be killed off for much more than a generation. At the same time unionist weariness at the ongoing constitutional debate has taken its toll on Sturgeon’s personal approval ratings.
Asked if there is any Brexit deal to be struck with London and Brussels that would satisfy nationalist demands Salmond, now MP for Gordon, says there is no prospect of Theresa May’s government delivering anything other than a “hard Brexit”, making a second referendum inevitable.
“If you had a wise, considerate, compassionate, interested, sympathetic UK government that said, ‘Scotland clearly is not hung up on this free movement of people issue, Scotland clearly wants to see its economy as part of the single market, we should negotiate from a position where Scotland and Northern Ireland continue to be members of the single marketplace…’ It’s feasible, it’s possible,” Salmond says.
But he adds: “Do I think they’ll do it? No I don’t. I see absolutely nothing in the Prime Minister’s demeanour or approach to this issue that is even close to saying we need to be sensitive to Scottish concerns, interests and priorities.
“Is it possible? Yes. Is it probable? No. Which is why it’s my belief that in two years time we’ll be fighting an independence referendum.”
If so, how will the pro-independence camp win the argument? Even if the post-Brexit case for independence is “compelling”, to quote the comments of former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg this week, a new independence bid will have to answer difficult new questions.
If Scotland is in the EU while the rest of the UK is out of the European single market, will there be a customs frontier along the border with England, separating it from its biggest market? How will Scotland make up its £15bn budget deficit, wider now because of the collapse in oil revenues?
Then there are the existing questions, like what currency an independent Scotland would use.
Regret and soul-searching aren’t attributes usually associated with Alex Salmond but asked what he would change about the 2014 campaign, he accepts that presenting a currency union with the UK as the only option was a mistake.
“You don’t know in advance how your opponents will respond to initiatives,” says Salmond. The tone in which he talks about his “old friends” George Osborne and former Treasury permanent secretary Sir Nicholas MacPherson suggest this still rankles.
“If I had a regret, earlier in the campaign I should have arrived at the position I articulated in the second debate, which was, ‘Look, there are a range of options here: A, B, C, D and E. I think A is the best but other options are successful.’
“What would option B be? Option B would be to have a Scottish pound linked with sterling, like Denmark has with the euro. Option C would be to have a floating currency, like Sweden has. Option D would be to be in the euro, but I don’t particularly think that’s a good option.
“In the second debate I said, here’s four options. I think A is the best, I think that will happen, but if it doesn’t here’s the rest.”
The SNP has already signalled it is trying to address its greatest weakness in 2014 referendum, with the announcement that its three top economic spokespeople at Westminster will examine the possibility of a Scottish pound. Salmond says he wants to “let that work be done”, but suggests a subtle shift in his own thinking on how the currency issue should be approached. With the UK on the way out of the EU, he says the arguments for a sterling currency union “are much weaker than they were in 2013”.
“Circumstances have changed. You’d now be talking about sterling outwith the ambit of Europe. You might well conclude that this mitigates for a different policy.”
Salmond concludes: “The work that’s being done by Nicola and her economic team will, I’m sure, come up with a good answer. But the one thing I would say is that when you present that answer, you say, ‘This is what we think is the best option. There are other options as well that work for other countries.’”
On Scotland’s economic forecasts, Salmond says: “The one thing that is absolutely certain about GERS, is that it does not tell you about the finances of an independent Scotland. It tells you about the finances of a devolved Scotland.” He claims that the economic policy of an independent Scottish Government will be far more important than the “static” deficit it inherits.
“There’s no possibility of a hard border,” Salmond adds. “The one and only thing that all sides agree now as far as Brexit is concerned is that there’s not going to be a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.” The common travel area within the British Isles dates back to 1924, he says. “If there’s not going to be a hard border there, then why would there be a hard border in Scotland?”
There is, however, a question mark over how, when and even if independence would preserve Scotland’s membership of the EU. Member states with their own sovereignty movements were hostile towards Scotland’s 2014 independence bid, and the EU itself was wary. Yesterday it was reported that EU member states remained opposed to an independent Scotland joining the bloc, but Salmond maintains that this time, it will be different.
“I think the world has changed utterly,” he says, pointing to supportive statements from former Belgian PM Guy Verhofstadt, now expected to be hawkish on a deal with the UK government as the European Parliament’s chief Brexit negotiator.
“If you contrast his statements on the one hand, as the parliament’s appointed negotiator, with José Manuel Barroso’s statements in early 2014 as the former – with the emphasis on former, president of the European Commission – these two sets of statements encapsulate the different environment in which the next referendum may well be fought.”