Those unionists celebrating the resignation of Alex Salmond should pause a moment. Salmond is certainly the most impressive politician in these islands, a visionary leader and strategist. A great bruiser and street fighter, too. But his departure won’t now weaken the SNP or the independence cause, and I’ll explain why.
The New Statesman collaborated with the First Minister several times during the campaign – on a special issue of the magazine in February – you can read his essay here – and he came to London at our invitation in March to deliver the New Statesman lecture, “Scotland’s Future in Scotland’s Hands” (You can watch the lecture and a Newsnight discussion about it here). It was then that he popularised the metaphor of London as the “dark star”, inexorably sucking in resources, people and energy. I had also visited him in June last year at Bute House, his official residence in Edinburgh, where we had a long conversation about the forthcoming referendum campaign.
Over dinner with us, in London, Salmond was delightful company: candid, learned, sarcastic, generous to former opponents (he spoke particularly fondly of John Major) and remorseless in his condemnation of those he least respected (George Osborne was mentioned more than once). Under his leadership the SNP was transformed from a protest party into the natural party of government in Scotland. He smashed Labour hegemony. And he watched delightedly as the party lost the backing first of much of Scotland’s leftish intelligentsia and then began to haemorrhage support in its old heartlands. And he persuaded his party, against some fierce opposition, that it would be right for an independent Scotland to join NATO.
Yet, as I said, the SNP will be stronger without Salmond, because his successor will be Nicola Sturgeon, who is adored by the party’s grassroots. A former lawyer, Sturgeon is a social democrat, politically to the left of Salmond, who is a free marketeer (his wish to cut corporation tax is unpopular with the SNP left) with some dodgy allies on the right. Sturgeon is building a power base in Glasgow, which voted Yes to independence. She is a formidable machine politician and an excellent platform speaker and media performer. She is a fine debater who speaks in complete sentences and knows exactly what she wants to say and how to say it. Labour in Scotland has no one of her calibre – or zeal. And she emerges from the referendum campaign with her reputation enhanced and her public profile as high as it has ever been.
I was relieved that the 307-year old Union was not shattered. But here’s the thing: 45 per cent of Scots who voted still voted for independence. That’s a lot of people who wanted to break from Britain. And there is no quick fix. Deep, structural forces are cleaving our United Kingdom. Scottish nationalism, the Ukip insurgency in England as well the general anti-politics, “stuff them” mood are all symptoms of the need not only for constitutional reform and a reconfigured Union but for far-reaching economic and social change.
From the beginning of the referendum campaign, Johann Lamont, the Scottish Labour leader, and her colleagues struggled to win over disillusioned voters – until a desperate, late scramble led by Gordon Brown pulled some of them back into the fold. Even so, Labour was routed in many of its old strongholds in Glasgow and Dundee. It also seems as if many working class Catholics in Glasgow voted for independence and have switched allegiance to the SNP, which was once perceived to be an anti-Catholic party.
Gordon Brown’s speech in Glasgow, on the eve of the vote, was the most inspiring exposition of the values of the Union and of Britishness I have read or heard in recent times. He took the fight to Alex Salmond and the pro-independence movement with all the fervor of an old-style Presbyterian preacher. And people loved it.
Here was the passion and emotion absent for so long from the Better Together campaign, which was too arid and technocratic. At times, it was as if Alistair Darling was afraid even to speak the word “British”
Is there any chance of a Labour revival in Scotland? Not yet. It would have been unthinkable even five years ago for Labour to take such a beating on independence in Glasgow.
Yet Gordon Brown offered a glimpse of the way ahead for Labour. Because of his deep understanding of history and economics, he articulated the unique achievement of the Union: the creation of a multinational state in which not merely civil and political freedoms but economic and social rights are shared.
If it is to recover, Labour must once again become the party of the masses in Scotland. It needs dynamic leadership and willing campaigners and activists on the ground.
For now, the SNP are in the ascendant and will become stronger still under the leadership of Sturgeon, who will succeed Alex Salmond in November.