Peter Wilby: I am more confident than ever that the Nos will have it

Alex Salmond will lose – perhaps by as much as a 55-45 margin – but lose well, an outcome that will satisfy an overwhelming majority of Scots and the one, I suspect, that Salmond himself favours.

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Being certain that a vote for independence wouldn’t happen, I have so far treated the Scottish referendum as unworthy of discussion. Have I changed my mind? Not about the result. On the contrary, I am more confident than ever that the Nos will have it. The only chance for the Yes camp was to squeak home by accident because the enormous polling lead against independence would lead many Scots to stay at home and some to vote Yes so that the country is not weakened in future negotiations over funds and devolved powers. The latest polls – some showing a Yes lead – have all but achieved that goal. Never again will Whitehall and Westminster take the Scots for granted and the main party leaders have, in effect, committed themselves to a new constitutional settlement. Alex Salmond will lose – perhaps by as much as a 55-45 margin – but lose well, an outcome that will satisfy an overwhelming majority of Scots and the one, I suspect, that Salmond himself favours.

The bookies agree with me: as I write, No is odds-on favourite at 2/5 whereas you can get 9/4 against a Yes vote. Whatever they tell pollsters – and tell themselves – most Scots will take the least risky option when they enter the polling booths, as voters nearly always do.


Disunionist party

The happy outcome of the referendum campaign – unforeseen, I admit, by me – is the humiliation of David Cameron, forced now to rely on his reviled prime ministerial predecessor to rescue the No campaign. In the constitution of the party he leads, the first line says it “shall be known as The Conservative and Unionist Party”. The “unionist” part goes back to 1886 when Liberal Unionists broke away from the Liberal Party to form an alliance with the Tories against Irish home rule. The two merged in 1912.

In Scotland, however, there was no Conservative Party until 1965, just a Unionist Party that always voted with the Tories at Westminster. It was the party of the Protestant working class when sectarian divisions in urban Scotland were almost as intense, if never as violent, as in Ulster. It delivered votes – including allied parties, it got a Scottish majority in 1955 – partly because, being distinctively Scottish, it seemed more nationalist than a Labour Party that favoured a strong central state. Now, after the imposition of the poll tax, council house sales, privatisation and benefit cuts, the Tories appear more centralist.

As most current Tory MPs don’t care about history, least of all their own party’s, Cameron may survive the absurdity of a “unionist” prime minister almost (or, if I’m wrong, actually) losing the Union. Indeed, backbench Eurosceptics may calculate that, because he’s a serial loser, they should keep him in place to lead another disastrous No (to leaving the EU) campaign in 2017.


Same auld, same auld

If Scotland does leave the UK, would things feel very different? Probably not. Its education and legal systems, banknotes (which, whatever is said about legal tender, most English shopkeepers won’t accept), football and rugby are already separate from England’s. Unlike Ireland, it has neither widely supported indigenous games nor a widely spoken native language, but thousands aren’t suddenly going to speak Gaelic or play hurling after independence.

More importantly, it is hard to imagine Scotland breaking the straitjacket imposed by international capital, which demands low wages, minimal regulation, reduced business taxes and privatisation of public services. Even Scandinavia, with its social-democratic traditions, hasn’t escaped; Sweden, for instance, has for-profit schools. As for border controls, I don’t see why Ed Miliband thinks they would be necessary for Scotland but not for Ireland.


Clan Woolf

Elizabeth Butler-Sloss resigned from the inquiry into historic child abuse because her brother was attorney general in the 1980s, when many cover-ups apparently occurred. Now her replacement, Fiona Woolf, may also have to resign because, the Mail on Sunday reports, she lives in the same street as another 1980s minister, the former home secretary Leon Brittan, sits on boards with him and once sponsored his wife for a charity fun run. The paper may be setting a high bar: it thinks Woolf should also be ruled out because she is “patron of a body . . . along with . . . Harriet Harman, whose National Council of [sic] Civil Liberties once had links to a notorious paedophile group”. But this episode provides a perfect illustration of the tightly knit nature of the London-based ruling establishment. I would say a Scottish outsider is needed except that Woolf, though now Lord Mayor of London, was born and schooled in Edinburgh. That’s something else that won’t change: Scots will still come south for top jobs. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article appears in the 10 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Britain in meltdown

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