As Alex Salmond’s flagship referendum bill sank beneath the waves last week, there were precious few mourners at the quayside, even amongst the SNP. There were even fewer criers of ‘betrayal’ – though the godfather of fundamentalism, the former SNP deputy leader, Jim Fairlie, remarked that: “at the mention of the word ‘independence’, a shiver ran through the ranks of the SNP, frantically searching for a spine to run up.”
The opposition parties snorted about broken promises and nails in the coffin of Alex Salmond’s credibility, but it was pretty routine stuff – as if the abandonment of the independence referendum bill was just another item on the list of lost manifesto commitments along with local income tax, the Scottish Futures Trust and abolishing student debt. But it is much more than that. Only two years ago, at the height of the SNP honeymoon, people were seriously talking about the momentum towards Scottish independence becoming unstoppable. August bodies like the Constitution Unit at UCL in London were holding conferences on the mechanics of separation – one referendum or two? how to split the national debt? It was more or less assumed that an independence referendum would happen, somehow. Not any more
So, I thought the SNP got off remarkably lightly last week. The referendum bill was supposed to be the climax of this first ever nationalist parliament – the cue for a national awakening. Instead, Scotland has gone back to its unionist slumber. But for how long? The SNP spinners insisted that the lost bill was an insignificant event, more a recognition of reality, almost a technicality. Alex Salmond promised to appeal “over the heads’ of the unionist parties at the Holyrood election in May, turning it into a referendum on independence. “Bring it on!” cried the unionist heads who would love the SNP turkeys to vote for an early Christmas. But, if exposing unionist perfidy was the SNP objective, surely it would have been better to put the referendum bill before parliament now and have it voted down by the unionist parties – expose them as a parcel o’ rogues who refuse to give Scotland a say on their constitutional destiny even as they plan referendums on AV and powers for the Welsh Assembly? That would surely have made a better springboard for a single issue election campaign.
Don’t get me wrong – I think the SNP were right to accept reality and get themselves off the referendum hook. There’s little point in holding a referendum you know you’re going to lose, and even less in tabling a referendum bill that that was bound to be voted out. But then I’ve never really understood the point of having a referendum on independence anyway because no one really knows what independence means any more. Flags and armies? Hardly. Border posts and a separate currency? Definitely not. The minimalist definition of independence would be the Scottish parliament plus tax powers – and that’s likely to happen anyway. Scotland already is a nation. It is a question of acquiring the lost accoutrements of a state, and that process is already underway.
Conspiracy theorists suspect that this is what Alex Salmond has been up to all along: muddying the pure waters of nationhood by adulterating it with devolution while distracting the SNP membership with an over-the-rainbow referendum that is never going to happen. The fact that we didn’t hear any accusations of this last week suggests that the SNP may already be on the way to becoming a post-nationalist party, accepting that independence is a process not an event. (I’d better say here that nothing Alex Salmond has ever said publicly or privately suggests that this is his view. He insists that independence remains his only ambition and that he really wants a referendum, even though the polls indicate he would lose it). But you can’t help noticing that the SNP’s electoral success really began with its de-coupling of independence from elections. Adopted in 2000, the policy of holding a referendum on independence allowed the SNP to campaign as a devolution party prepared to run the Scottish parliament on its own terms – to demonstrate its ability to govern. Previously, SNP policy had been to seek separation from the UK the moment it secured a majority of seats in a Scottish general election. Promising a referendum before independence allowed Scots to vote for the SNP without the fear that they might actually find themselves independent by accident.
And they got what they wanted. The 2007 SNP government was a revelation – it was dynamic, purposeful, intelligent, imaginative. Suddenly, there were ministers in St Andrews House who sounded like they really wanted to be ministers, who relished the workload and welcomed the public exposure. And there was someone in Bute House who wasn’t always looking over his shoulder at what London Labour was making of it all. Who was his own man and determined to govern in Scotland’s best interest. The nationalists really did ‘work as if they were living in the early days of a better nation’ , following Alasdair Gray. For a while, Scotland became a bit more confident and outward looking, a bit less preoccupied with resentment at London . A future as a small nation in Europe, with a bold financial sector and an adaptable knowledge economy, began to look like a real possibilit. Just like, er, Ireland and Iceland.
Typical: just as Scotland is finally getting its act together, what happens? The greatest financial crisis in eighty years requiring a trillion pound bale out organised by the London Treasury. You couldn’t make it up Suddenly it didn’t seem so clever to be a small country with big banks – especially if you had the misfortune to have two of the biggest and baddest banks on the planet: Royal Bank of Scotland and Halifax Bank of Scotland. Scotland was saved from financial extinction by London gold. Or so it appeared.
Even though I never supported formal independence, I do feel a sense of sadness at the way that spirit of optimism, generated by the SNP in 2007 was crushed under the weight of collateralised debt obligations. The Nationial Theatre of Scotland compared it to the Darien Disaster, in its Festival production “Caledonia”. That was too glib. But the crash has robbed the country of some of its self-confidence, and that has always been in short supply. And as we enter the a new dark age of fiscal austerity, the dream of independence is fading, like the summer. When will we see its like again?