Alex Salmond, former First Minister of Scotland whose defeat in the independence referendum precipitated his retirement from office (though not from politics – he is standing as a candidate for Westminster at the general election) has now published his own account of the referendum campaign. The title of his book, ‘The Dream Shall Never Die: 100 Days that Changed Scotland Forever’, might at first blush seem unjustified. The nationalists lost the vote by a substantial 10 per cent margin so, on the face of it, Scotland did not change.
On closer analysis, however, it becomes apparent that Salmond is right to assert that the referendum changed Scotland forever, or at least threatens to do so, though he cannot claim personal credit for that dubious achievement. The authors of the current state of anarchic incoherence in Scotland’s constitutional relationship to the rest of the United Kingdom and the consequent threat to the Union were David Cameron and the other incompetent and cowardly leaders of the Unionist parties.
Salmond accurately pinpoints this as early as page 2 of his account, describing how he watched David Cameron responding to the referendum result on television by reiterating his pledge of lavish more powers for Scotland: “I think ‘You silly arrogant man… no one realises the door that Cameron has just opened.” Indeed. The true story of the Scottish debacle is not the electorate’s closing of the door to independence at the ballot box, but Cameron’s re-opening of it, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
Salmond puts a predictable populist, faux revolutionary spin on the situation by claiming: “The accepted order has been smashed – and it is the people who have achieved it.” Sorry, Alex, but the people voted No; the people who subverted the Union belonged to a much smaller demographic than the electorate, a Westminster-based political class whose lack of conviction, constitutional nous and plain common sense has negated the stability the Scottish voters attempted to restore on referendum day and, by giving Salmond and his associates 90 per cent of what they want, put separatism back into contention.
Salmond prefaces his narrative with a potted survey of Scottish history. This was unwise. Anyone who is so historically illiterate as to cite “every movement for radical change in Scotland, from Jacobite to Jacobin” would be better advised to eschew attempts at historiography. The Jacobites, supporters of Divine Right monarchy, were a reactionary movement attempting to reverse the radical change imposed by the Whigs in 1688. Salmond, however, sees the past through a prism of Braveheart kitsch separatism, to which historical reality must be adapted for political purposes.
Much of the book is the standard diary-style narrative of the 100 days leading up to the referendum vote that politicians love to produce. It is peppered with couthy anecdotes as King Alex goes out among his adoring subjects. When such a spin would be too incredible to sustain, euphemism is generously employed, as when Salmond attends Armed Forces Day: “Although the military crowd reaction is not unanimously favourable towards me it is still positive indeed warm.” This modest reception is immediately countered: “Meanwhile at Bannockburn, where the organisation is struggling with the surge of the great crowd which has turned up, the reaction towards me is both unanimous and hugely favourable.”
“But enough about me” is a phrase you will search for in vain in these pages. Nor is Salmond’s account lacking in audacity, some of it breathtaking: “Many people were perplexed by the apparent willingness of the Head of the Treasury, Sir Nicholas Macpherson, to abandon any vestige of civil service impartiality during the referendum campaign.” Such self-righteous whingeing comes implausibly from the man who, with the complicity of Sir Peter Housden, the Permanent Secretary, aggressively politicised the civil service in Scotland to serve the nationalist interest, to a degree that provoked questions in the House of Commons.
But the question that will perplex most readers is: with Scotland pullulating with nationalist fervour, massive crowds acclaiming the separatist messiah and happy auguries brimming from the entrails of every pigeon the nationalist soothsayers dissected – how did they come to lose? Not only to lose by a convincing 10 per cent margin, but in 28 of the 32 referendum constituencies? Despite Salmond’s rhetoric, the snide remarks and bombast, they were always going to lose. The result was a fairly accurate reflection of the majority of opinion polls.
It was the Unionist high command in London that panicked in response to one rogue poll allotting the Yes camp a 2-point lead that produced the ridiculous “vow” that resulted in separatism, quashed by the electorate on 18 September, being put back on course on 19 September. Salmond’s part in this transformation of the UK constitution is modest compared to David Cameron’s. Cameron has never had the slightest rapport with the British public, let alone the Scots. His political instincts and talents are virtually non-existent. Cameron is a man who cannot see a pass without selling it. Alex saw Dave coming.
At every stage, the independence issue was mishandled. The only body with constitutional authority to concede Scottish independence is the Westminster Parliament. Westminster, therefore, should have taken exclusive charge of the Scottish referendum in 2010. It should have set a straightforward question and put it to the Scottish voters, without delay, three months later. Scots should have been told: “We earnestly hope you will stay in Britain, but we cannot further destabilise the United Kingdom by awarding you further devolved powers.” The whole issue should have been settled for a generation by September 2010.
Instead, David Cameron negotiated with Alex Salmond as if he were already a sovereign head of government. The Scottish government was allowed to gerrymander the electoral roll by the inclusion of 16-year-olds and the SNP-dominated Holyrood parliament ran the referendum show. Salmond was permitted to string out the “neverendum” over two and a half years. This generated a separatist climate, intensified by the massive further concessions of devolved powers in the closing stages of the plebiscite.
As a consequence of Cameron’s ineptitude, the future of the United Kingdom is even more in doubt than it was during the referendum campaign. Alex Salmond is now aiming to invade Westminster with a sizeable army of MPs, at a time when political deadlock is likely. He will then deliver the coup-de-grace to the Union. This book reveals his shallowness: he is not a political giant, except in the Lilliputian environment of Holyrood. If Salmond has indeed changed Scotland forever, he owes it all to his opponents.
The Dream Shall Never Die: 100 Days that Changed Scotland Forever. Alex Salmomd, William Collins, RRP £12.99