In late March, I bemoaned the absence in the discussions of the past 2 years during the Scottish referendum of any “serious attempt to develop different political, economic and social scenarios for Scotland which might arise from a yes vote after 18 September.
Of course there have been many calculations about the economic impact and assessments of the social even psychological effects of independence - but I haven’t actually seen any attempt to sketch out possible scenarios of the future knock-on effects.
The point about futures is that they surprise! It is one thing to have an opinion about the inherent righteousness of a future move. Quite another to assess its likely consequences.
This great tongue-in-cheek piece which Martin Kettle produced has only now come to my attention -
Looking back from 2024 at that last golden summer of the old Britain, it all still seems hard to believe. How did the country’s rulers not see what was about to happen? How did such an articulate and sensible people as the British let such a thing creep up on them?And then one remembers how easy it is for nations to stumble into the unforeseen. By rich irony, many in Britain were unusually conscious of such dangers in 2014. The centenary of the first world war, when a supremely confident imperial Britain collapsed into war in another golden summer, was on many minds. Appropriately, one of 2014’s bestselling books about 1914 was entitled The Sleepwalkers. Yet few realised, even when the Queen travelled to Glasgow to lead the post-imperial nation in remembrance on 4 August, that history was about to repeat itself.
There were signs, for those who paid attention, though too few did. No one disputed the vote-winning skills of the nationalist leader, Alex Salmond, reinforced in a televised debate the day after the Glasgow service. Passion for independence among writers and artists helped fan the mood that the time had come. The Glasgow Commonwealth Games in late July made Scots feel good. And the opinion polls, which had seemed to stabilise after a move towards yes in the spring, began to narrow again as the 18 September vote neared.
Nevertheless, the announcement of the referendum result at the Royal Highland Centre in the small hours of Friday 19 September was a political earthquake. As dawn rose over Edinburgh a few miles to the east, Mary Pitcaithly stood in front of the cameras (her rostrum is now in the Alex Salmond Museum in Linlithgow) and announced that 1.707 million Scots had voted for independence and 1.603 against. After 307 years, the United Kingdom was no more. By a 52%-to-48% majority, Scotland was an independent country.
The result stunned a London that had consistently ignored events in Scotland ever since devolution in 1999. While Salmond stood against a Forth Bridge backdrop to announce “Scotland is a free nation once again”, and total strangers embraced in Princes Street, the UK prime minister, David Cameron, emerged from 10 Downing Street to say it was a profoundly serious day for Britain, but the result must be respected. In London the Labour leader Ed Miliband phoned Cameron and demanded the emergency recall of parliament. Cameron agreed, adding that the autumn party conferences should be abandoned in favour of one-day rallies to be addressed by the party leaders. Cameron then rang the Queen, who was at Balmoral, and advised her to return to London. Not amused, the Queen said no. An hour later Gerry Adams gave a press conference in Dublin to call for a referendum in Northern Ireland on unification with the Irish Republic, to take place at Easter 2016. The Northern Ireland government began to totter. Cameron rang Balmoral again, and this time the Queen agreed to return.
Fearful of a leak that would hand a propaganda coup to Salmond before 18 September, Whitehall had done no formal contingency planning for the negotiations that now began, though the cabinet secretary, Jeremy Heywood, had made some back-of-an-envelope notes. Once a venue was agreed – the meetings were held in York and may have triggered the rise of the Yorkshire Independence party, which won the 2016 Doncaster North byelection that followed Miliband’s appointment as director of the London School of Economics – the talks were soon bogged down. Salmond’s timetable, which optimistically foresaw completion and full sovereignty by March 2016, was soon binned. Partly this was because the talks, led by Nicola Sturgeon for Scotland and William Hague for the remaining UK, trod water as the May 2015 UK general election approached.
Further delays were caused by the failed coalition negotiations between Labour and the Liberal Democrats that followed the election of a second hung parliament.But the main reason for delay was the increasingly uncompromising attitude of the new Cameron minority government, which was permanently under pressure from the Tory grassroots following the “Don’t give the bastards a bawbee” by the new Ukip leader Boris Johnson in May. The second was the dawning that no formal handover could take place until both parliaments had processed the 400-page Scottish independence bill which finally emerged from the York negotiations in March 2016 – the month in which Northern Ireland voted narrowly to join the republic, thus reigniting the Ulster civil war.
By the Scottish elections of May 2016 Salmond’s star had lost its sheen. Opponents of the York agreement abandoned the SNP over Salmond and Sturgeon’s compromises on Trident and the currency. The Real SNP took enough votes from the nationalists to bring a Labour-led government back to power at Holyrood headed by Jim Murphy, one of Scotland’s Labour MPs who had not decamped to an English constituency after 2014. Salmond duly stepped down.With the Scottish bill increasingly bogged down in the Commons, Cameron accelerated the promised referendum on EU membership. But the hurt caused by the 2014 vote and increasing media bitterness in England towards Scotland had an unexpected flipside. Insecurity about the future meant that voters took fright at the prospect of a broken UK going it alone.
The referendum was a triumph for the Better Together campaign, which won the vote to stay in the EU by the same two-to-one margin as in the 1975 referendum.But it was a pyrrhic victory for Cameron. When his party split over the result, the prime minister resigned and Labour’s Douglas Alexander, now MP for Holborn, took office at the head of an all-party government comprising Labour’s pro-Europe majority and a rump of pro-Cameron Tories.
The upshot for Scotland was that weak Labour governments in Holyrood and Westminster, both led by unionist Scots, were left to push through an independence package that neither agreed with, and from which support had ebbed in Scotland.Looking back at 2014 10 years afterwards, it all seems a terrible waste of energy and time. This spring, as the collapse of the pound finally forced the Alexander government to begin negotiations to join the eurozone – with the Murphy government meanwhile urging the UK to keep the pound – the new European commission president, Nick Clegg, was caught on a microphone warning: “Be careful what you wish for in politics.” It is hard not to agree.
Now, that’s what I call imaginative reporting!