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Salmond's Christmas Present (December 2007)

This article was first published on The Guardian's Comment is Free

The pendulum has swung. Scottish independence now stands at 40%, only just behind devolution at 44%.


On December 10, David Cameron was in Edinburgh, vowing to fight for the union against the "stain of separatism". The logic of this was presumably that polls showed support for independence declining, despite the popularity of the SNP government. Since then the pendulum has swung. Independence stands at 40%, only just behind devolution at 44%. Further, if the SNP's Westminster vote is calculated on the current UK poll, it has actually edged to the front, reversing a long-standing Labour advantage. Alex Salmond's gamble - in the terms of the trade a risky accumulator - has paid off in time for Christmas.

A minority SNP government wasn't an outcome foreseen by most of the Scottish election actors on and after May 3 - who probably expected a continuation of the ‘multi-party’ parliament of 2003-7 after protracted and binding courtship rituals. Salmond grasped his chance about May 11, believing that a coalition agreement with the Liberal Democrats was more trouble than it was worth. Autonomy would give the SNP the chance to take over the government machine and use the limited time the party had before the opposition regrouped to adopt bold initiatives, including restating independence and making deals on its basis.

The Independence white paper Choosing Scotland's Future came out on August 14. Although I helped draft it, and have the title to my credit, I felt then that it was premature. The honeymoon effect would wear off over the next couple of months, with the SNP's election promises and targets (which party members expected to be qualified by inter-party deals: blame it on the Lib Dems!) coming to roost, and the consolidated spending review (CSR) looming up with its promised cuts. Was it wise to offer such a hostage to fortune?

Yes, as matters turned out. The first minister had much to gain by carrying the war into the enemy's camp, and did so effectively. Even without a full assault on Labour's new leader Wendy Alexander, she was weakened by the eclipse of the ‘shuttlefolk’ with the separation of Edinburgh and London into two separate power-centres, even before the party machine started tearing itself to bits. Outperformed by others on her front bench, and showing astonishing negative capability in PR, she is now in the embarrassing position of having a preservation order put on her by the Nats.

If Salmond was doing well up to October, while the polls were in Brown's favour (like the Thatcher-to-Major effect, and equally transient), he was likely to do even better when Brown started to slip.

He put this across in the runup to September 20 and the first meeting of the Scottish council of economic advisers. This was scarcely covered in the London papers - Brown got publicity for his rather odd bunch by hiring Thatcher's old china Alan ‘Who is Gordon Brown?’ Sugar - an odd situation even by London media standards. Once sub-prime mortgages shambled onstage, Salmond became a figure of Gladstonian rectitude and Brown a barrow boy.

Moreover, Salmond's ‘arc of prosperity’ ethos is increasingly being backed up by the outcome of renewables research and engineering. The tapping of wave power, ‘the might of the mighty Atlantic’ - has reached about where North Sea oil was in the late 1960s. This has been overshadowed by the stushie over the Trump golf colony: something of a fata morgana, given the dollar's collapse, let alone Trump's legendarily tortuous finances. The main need is to fix key alliances with European engineering centres (also purchasers of the new power and would-be buriers of CO2), inevitably sidelining links with a UK which lacks too many of the essential technologies.

There is no unity about constitutional futures. The opposition carried on December 12, the creation of a ‘Scottish convention’ to extend ‘fiscal autonomy’ short of independence, but this compromise is opaque - neither federal nor confederal - and the Lib-Lab worry must be that under pressure many centre figures might go for the SNP, or for a level of autonomy which amounted to its position. Whatever his words, Cameron's election at Westminster would accelerate this tendency. No Scottish poll foresees any recovery in Tory fortunes.

The relevant question is this. With which capital in the British islands does London enjoy its closest relationships? With Dublin, dealings are at their best probably since Strongbow's day. Under pressure of fuel crisis, Scots energy - first oil, then renewables - could power an English recovery, through some sort of bilateral deal. The density of this relationship would be built up by ad hoc regional and cultural bodies, by the monarchy - at least for a time - and by the Commonwealth. Neighbourliness, a reinterpretation of Adam Smith's ‘sympathy’, depends on autonomy. This is Salmond's Christmas present, and if the Tories have any nous, they'll take it.

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