That Alex Salmond “bestrides the Scottish political world like a colossus”, as the novelist and historian Allan Massie puts it in the Times this morning (£), is indisputable. Massie describes Thursday’s elections for the devolved Scottish parliament, in which the Scottish National Party won a clear majority, the “most extraordinary” in his lifetime.
Indeed, he goes so far as to say that the Union looks “far shakier” today than it did a fortnight ago. Yet the implications of the SNP victory (and the routing of Scottish Labour in seats it previously regarded as safe) are nevertheless ambiguous.
Massie reminds us that the election was, in effect, a referendum on Salmond’s leadership (and the SNP ran an unabashedly presidential campaign that left the hapless Labour leader, Iain Gray, without a prayer), not on independence. Salmond’s dilemma is this: “He is on top of the Scottish political world, yet opinion polls consistently show that only about a third of Scots want independence.”
Salmond has a delicate calculation to make, therefore, though some of his colleagues clearly see the result as a mandate for a referendum on independence in the near future. The SNP justice minister, Kenny McAskill, declared in his victory speech in Edinburgh East that: “It is time for Scotland to take responsibility and become a nation once again.” Salmond, though, is too canny a politician not to recognise the seductions of hubris.
But whatever timetable for a referendum the SNP ultimately decides upon, the election in Scotland has merely emphasised something that we knew already: the United Kingdom’s constitutional settlement is a botched job. Shortly after the formation of the Tory-Lib Dem coalition government last year, David Runciman wrote an excellent piece in the London Review of Books mulling the likely consequences of an election in which Labour had lost England to the Conservatives but held its end up in Scotland.
“What no coalition of any stripe can change,” Runciman wrote, “is the underlying reality of the situation: at present Labour can only govern England from Scotland, and the Tories can only govern Scotland from England.”
The question we now have to ask, as Salmond luxuriates in an overall majority in the devolved parliament north of the border, is whether, at the next general election, Labour will be capable even of doing that. “The one result that could have signalled the end of the United Kingdom”, Runciman argued, was “if Tory dominance in England had been matched by SNP dominance in Scotland, leading to a deal on independence which would have squeezed Labour out in both”. The outcome of the Scottish election might just have made such a result in 2015 more likely.