Alex Salmond has a few things in common with his English nationalist counterpart Nigel Farage. They both admire Vladimir Putin, for example, and despise what they call the ‘Westminster elite”. They both appear to be electorally very shrewd politicians, but if Salmond has his way in a couple of weeks time he will make the title of Farage’s insurrectionist party look a little redundant. For of the United Kingdom there will be no more.
This debate has failed to properly permeate English consciousness, perhaps one indication that the Scots may not be wrong when they claim that England exudes a general stand-offishness towards its northern neighbour. This weekend, however, appears to have changed that. A poll from Yougov shows the ‘Yes’ campaigners (i.e. ‘Yes’ to an independent Scotland, for those whose failure to follow the referendum includes ignorance of the question being asked!) ahead of the ‘No’s” for the first time in the campaign. Given the substantial lead that the No team had at the start of the campaign, that’s a pretty bad blow. And a shocking indictment of the way the “Better Together” campaign has been run.
The momentum is now with Salmond and the independence advocates, and it might just succeed. Momentum counts for much, and two weeks or so before the vote it might be enough to take them over the finish line, while two weeks represents a very short window for the complacent and unimaginative No campaigners to get their act together again.
It is in some ways astonishing how little attention this campaign has had south of the border, given that it is one of the most significant constitutional challenges since….well, since thirteen colonies on the eastern seaboard of America chose to go their own way. Perhaps it was because no-one ever really believed Scotland would possibly want to go independent. I’ve lost count of the number of English friends who have no possible ground-connection with Scotland but who have cheerfully asserted that Scotland will clearly not vote ‘Yes’. Hmmm. Maybe we should have paid more attention to, er, the Scots themselves on this one? The Scots may have a natural wariness of the dangers of independence but they also appear to be warming to the high-risk strategy that says whatever the downside, at least we are our own nation again. We are Scots, and we don’t have to live under the yoke of English government ever again. I suspect that if that is the case, it could be a dangerous delusion. The Economics Editor of the Sunday Times is just one of the several voices suddenly raised today warning that an independent Scotland is doomed to fail (his article is behind the paywall, so I haven’t bothered linking here, but probably worth begging or buying a copy of the Sunday Times for today).
The shock of the poll has prompted unrest in Tory ranks – never very far away to be honest. Several un-named ‘senior’ Tory backbenchers have given voice to the idea – gaining momentum on much the same trajectory as the move towards a Scottish Yes – that David Cameron, the Englishman with the Scots name, might be forced to do a Lord North and resign if he presides over the loss of Scotland. Quite apart from the fact that it is a remarkable feature of modern British politics that Tory MPs cannot bear to stay united behind a Prime Minister for more than a week or so, the ‘Cameron must go” brigade is making much of the advantage given to Salmond in allowing him the upper hand when negotiating the date, franchise and question of the referendum. But their real issue probably remains a belief that Cameron still represents a marginally more constructive attitude towards Europe than most of his party wants, and a triumphant ‘Yes’ vote offers them the opportunity to get rid of him. The Tory responses to the Scottish campaign, and their continuing travails as an utterly dysfunctional party are worth a separate post, but it does indicate how the referendum north of the border is finally making its tentacles felt in all aspects of the British body politic. Perhaps it should have done so earlier.
Whatever the tremors in the Tory Party, they should be as nothing compared to what might happen in Labour’s ranks. “Better Together” is as much a Labour campaign as anything, and while Scottish Tories remain solidly pro-Union (and over 400,000 Scots voted Tory in the 2010 election, a mere 80,000 fewer than the SNP) the key to the campaign lies with wavering Labour voters seduced by Alex Salmond’s promises of a state with pretty well free everything. Labour have 41 Westminster seats in Scotland, and a Yes vote could traduce them as a governing party in Westminster. It isn’t just Cameron who might fear for his position if Scotland votes to go it alone.
The Sunday papers are awash with the sort of articles about Scottish independence that could usefully have been part of their warp and weft for many months prior to this weekend, but what we have is fascinating. The single best analysis, in my view, in that it takes a broad look at all of the implications behind the vote without reducing itself to a particular partisan view, is Andrew Rawnsley's commentary in the Obsever. Will Hutton, in the same paper, offers a crie de coeur against breaking the Union, while Dominic Lawson over in the Sunday Times suggests that an independent Scotland would soon become a low-tax, right-wing haven. There is also the interesting notion being raised of an independent Scotland seeing a revival of a centre-right party, once the Tories have been freed from the hated English link. In the Telegraph, Iain Martin writes a more viscerally anti-Salmond piece under the giveaway headline “The final push for Alex Salmond’s land of fantasy”.
The Scots have been arguing about independence for months without us taking much interest. Time now to sit up and notice, for an earthquake might be coming.