A couple of weeks before the 2011 Scottish Parliament election, I wrote a leading article in the New Statesman warning Labour that they were facing a defeat that would have profound consequences for the party, Scotland and the United Kingdom. Labour leader Ed Miliband was baffled. He said to a colleague of mine (and I paraphrase): “Why is Jason warning us about Scotland?” He got his answer when Labour were deservedly routed and the SNP won a landslide victory.
For far too long, the Westminster establishment has been complacent about Scotland and the aspirations of the Scottish people. It’s as if they misunderstood or hadn’t bothered even seriously to think about why so many Scots were restless for change. Or why so many Scots felt alienated from the globalised quasi-city state that is London and from the Westminster jamboree. A politician such as the clownish UKIP leader Nigel Farage has huge influence in England, even though his party does not hold a single Westminster seat. His populist anti-immigrant, anti-European rhetoric is shaping Conservative and Labour party policy. In Scotland, UKIP are an irrelevance.
In the 1955 general election, the Conservative and Unionist Party won a majority of seats in Scotland. In 1997, in the last general election before the introduction of devolution, they won none out of 72 seats. A spectacular decline.The harshness and cruelty of the Thatcher years destroyed the Tories north of the Border. They dumped the poll tax on Scotland first and myopically opposed devolution. Today, PM David Cameron would rather lecture the Scots from the safety of an empty velodrome in east London than dare to speak in Edinburgh or debate directly with the First Minister. If he did, he knows he would be traduced and ridiculed.
Labour have big problems, too. They have lost the support in Scotland of many intellectuals, writers and artists who now favour independence, if not the SNP. These people matter because they create a culture and a climate of opinion. Meanwhile, among the poorest fifth of Scots, Alex Salmond has an extraordinary approval rating of +26. The battle for independence is increasingly dividing along class lines. For decades, Labour treated Scotland as if it was their personal fiefdom. The party became bloated and the talent pool more shallow as the most able Labour politicians – Donald Dewar, Robin Cook, John Smith, Gordon Brown, Alistair Darling, Douglas Alexander – all headed south.
At Westminster, Salmond is respected as a dangerous and formidable opponent but until very recently the standard line on Scottish independence was: “It won’t happen.” But now there is a palpable sense of panic among English elites. London-based liberal media commentators are writing plaintive pleas for the Scots not to go. Even veteran rocker David Bowie has a view – from New York. There is growing anxiety, certainly among Labour supporters, that independence would result in an increasingly Eurosceptic, permanently Tory-dominated, rump-UK. Meanwhile, Scotland would be free to forge a new identity as a Nordic-style social democracy.
In a New Statesman essay last week, Salmond writes of how an independent Scotland could act as a progressive beacon for those in these islands who yearn for a fairer society. On Tuesday evening, he will, at our invitation, come south to give a lecture making the case for independence in the heart of Westminster. The English are belatedly waking up to the threat he poses to the unity of these islands. His long-held mission is to break up the British state. The British state is fighting back, hence George Osborne’s declaration –supported by Labour and the Liberal Democrats – that the UK would not enter into monetary union with an independent Scotland.
When I visited the FM at Bute House in Edinburgh last summer, he told me we were in the early stages of a “phoney war”. “We are just clearing the ground,” he said. Well, the ground has been cleared and battle begun in earnest. Whatever the outcome of the referendum, the status quo is unacceptable. I expect Salmond will lose narrowly in September but be able to claim a kind of victory. He must sense the UK is moving inexorably towards federalism. Even if it remains inside the Union, Scotland will not have to wait too long for even greater autonomy.
This piece originally appeared in the Sunday Mail