The final countdown
There was a moment during the SNP party conference, held in Aberdeen, that seemed to sum up how far the Scottish political scene had gone off kilter.
Ignoring the assembled SNP supporters, Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon spoke straight to Labour voters, telling them to vote for independence in order to save their party.
She said: “All too often, even when there is a UK Labour Government, it is the priorities of Westminster, not of Scotland, which prevail. That is why more and more Labour voters are voting Yes. The chair of Yes Scotland is Dennis Canavan – a former Labour MP who has spent his life campaigning for social justice. Dennis is voting Yes.”
She continued: “To every Labour voter in the country, I say this. The Yes campaign is not asking you to leave your party. Instead, it offers you the chance to get your party back. A Labour Party free to make its own decisions. No longer dancing to a Westminster tune. For everyone out there with Labour in your heart, the message is clear. Don’t vote No to stop the SNP. Vote Yes to reclaim the Labour Party.”
In a keynote speech to her party conference, the Deputy First Minister mentioned the SNP on five occasions. She mentioned Labour 18 times.
Even if it was not the first time that an architect of the Yes campaign has attempted to reach out to Labour voters, the speech was revealing.
Scottish politics has got weird.
The independence debate may have raged for decades – for centuries according to some – but it was this year that really saw the debate speed up.
In October Alistair Carmichael replaced Michael Moore as Secretary of State for Scotland in a move that was thought to have been motivated by stagnant polling for Better Together, driving concerns that someone more combative was needed in the post.
This feeling was echoed by comments from Carmichael upon taking over, promising the media he was “up for it” against Salmond – though one big development over the past year has been the increased prominence given to Nicola Sturgeon, ahead of the First Minister.
Certainly both were present as the SNP fired the most important shot of the debate up to that point, with the launch of its 670-page White Paper on independence.
Speaking at the unveiling of the paper, Scotland’s Future, in November, Sturgeon said: “This is a landmark document which sets out the economic, social and democratic case for independence.
“It demonstrates Scotland’s financial strengths and details how we will become independent – the negotiations, preparations and agreements that will be required in the transition period from a vote for independence in September next year to our proposed Independence Day of 24 March 2016.”
Better Together leader Alistair Darling responded, calling the publication a “work of fiction, full of meaningless assertions”.
Writing in The Spectator, Darling said: “Nothing has changed as a result of today’s White Paper. There is nothing that we found out today that we didn’t already know. Yesterday Alex Salmond’s case for breaking up the UK was based on assertions. Today it is still based on assertions.”
He continued: “The simple fact is that the nationalists have ducked the opportunity to answer any of the big questions about our country’s future. They promised us facts. What they have given us is a wish list with no prices attached.”
This exchange has continued since, with the SNP redirecting questions to the publication as pro-Union supporters write it off – claiming that it is as empty as it is lengthy.
In December, Carmichael put in such a horrendous showing in a TV debate with Sturgeon that the newly promoted ‘bruiser’ of a Scottish Secretary was reduced to asking the moderator, Rona Dougall, “Are you going to stop this?” after a brutal series of questions on the UK’s record on child poverty.
And with the new year, the debate picked up pace, becoming more heated as the Yes campaign, while still trailing Better Together in the polls, seemed to be gathering momentum.
The first signs emerged that, even if Yes were still behind, independence looked to be a possibility, with an ICM survey showing that support for independence had risen from 32 per cent last September to 37 per cent by the new year.
Mark Carney injected a calmer tone to proceedings in January, making a measured speech on the currency options available to an independent Scotland.
Carney warned that a currency union would be a matter for politicians to decide.
He said: “If such deliberations ever were to happen, they would need to consider carefully what the economics of currency unions suggest are the necessary foundations for a durable union, particularly given the clear risks if these foundations are not in place.
“Those risks have been demonstrated clearly in the euro area over recent years, with sovereign debt crises, financial fragmentation and large divergences in economic performance.”
The speech was a deliberately impartial one, but that did not stop Union campaigners – along with much of the press – from seizing on one sentence in which Carney said a currency union, “requires some ceding of national sovereignty”.
Spin kicked in from both sides, with Swinney welcoming what he saw as a recognition from Carney that there were benefits to a shared pound and Darling claiming that the speech had been ‘devastating’ for the case for independence.
David Cameron made his first big intervention into the debate in February, with Better Together previously concerned at what effect the Prime Minister would have on left-leaning Scots with an inclination towards No.
Making the speech in the site of Sir Chris Hoy’s Olympic success in East London, Cameron said he wanted to remind Scots that the Union valued them. Cameron said: “Some people have even advised me to stay out of this issue – and not to get too sentimental about the UK. I care far too much to stay out of it.
“Our brilliant United Kingdom: brave, brilliant, buccaneering, generous, tolerant, proud – this is our country. And we built it together, brick by brick: Scotland, England, Wales, Northern Ireland. Brick by brick. This is our home, and I could not bear to see it torn apart. I love this country. I love the United Kingdom and all it stands for, and I will fight with everything I have to keep us together. And so I want to be clear to everyone listening: there can be no complacency about the result of this referendum. The outcome is still up in the air and we have just seven months to go; seven months to do all we can to keep our United Kingdom as one; seven months to save the most extraordinary country in history.
“So to everyone in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, everyone like me, who cares about the United Kingdom, I want to say this: you don’t have a vote, but you do have a voice. Those voting, they’re our friends, they’re our neighbours, they’re our family. You do have an influence. So, get on the phone, get together, email, tweet, speak; let the message ring out from Manchester to Motherwell, from Pembrokeshire to Perth, from Belfast to Bute, from us to the people of Scotland. Think of what we’ve done together, what we can do together, what we stand for together.”
Commentators called it the ‘love bomb’.
But it was not to last. Less than a week after Cameron courted Scots’ affection at the Velodrome, the Conservatives, Labour and the Lib Dems made a concerted move to veto the possibility of a currency union post independence.
Up till February Better Together had remained guarded about the negotiations that would take place after a Yes, with critics attacking the UK Government for refusing to enter any negotiations before the outcome was decided.
In this context Osborne’s announcement, made in Edinburgh, represented the biggest surprise of the campaign so far.
Basing his stance on advice he received from Sir Nicholas Macpherson, Permanent Secretary to the Treasury, Osborne said: “The value of the pound lies in the entire monetary system underpinning it. A system that includes the Bank of England and the tens of millions of UK taxpayers who stand behind that financial system. It is a system that is supported by political union, banking union and automatic transfers of public spending across the United Kingdom.
“A vote to leave the UK is also a vote to leave these unions and those transfers and those monetary arrangements. That’s part of the choice that people in Scotland are being asked to make. There’s no legal reason why the rest of the UK would need to share its currency with Scotland, as the Treasury’s publication today clearly shows.
“So when the nationalists say, ‘the pound is as much ours as the rest of the UK’s’ are they really saying that an independent Scotland could insist that taxpayers in a nation it has just voted to leave had to continue to back the currency of this new foreign country, had to consider the circumstances of this foreign country when setting their interest rates, stand behind the banks of this foreign country as a lender of last resort, or stand behind its foreign government when it needed public spending support.”
The Tory Chancellor was clear: “That is patently absurd. If Scotland walks away from the UK, it walks away from the UK pound.”
With Salmond seemingly focused on reassuring voters that Yes would not mean losing the Queen, the BBC or the currency, the move was aimed at destroying the argument for Yes – though the currency union was always an SNP policy, not one shared across the parties joined in the campaign.
The SNP responded by suggesting that if Scotland was blocked from sharing the pound in a currency union then it would refuse to take on a share of the UK’s national debt.
Sturgeon said: “This is a position that makes no sense. It is a tactical position for the purposes of a campaign in which their whole approach is to stir up fear and uncertainty.”
She said: “For all of the reasons I have set out, the position that a UK government would turn its back on a currency union doesn’t bear scrutiny. It would be a move that would be completely against the interests not just of Scotland but the rest of the UK. It’s a campaign manoeuvre, it’s posturing, it’s a tactic, and what they say now on currency will be very different to what they say after Scotland votes Yes.”
She added: “People can see the sense of the position we’re putting forward, for Scotland and the rest of the UK, and they know this is a rather cack-handed, panicky campaign manoeuvre.”
SNP MP Stewart Hosie said: “The UK Government themselves, two weeks ago when they made their announcement, said that the debt was UK debt and they had to honour it. Now we are perfectly happy to service and pay our share of that but the discussions on the liabilities, including the national debt, go hand in glove with the assets, which includes the Bank of England and a currency union. And George Osborne can’t have it both ways.”
Sturgeon’s stance seemed to be vindicated by a report in the Guardian, claiming that an unnamed government minister had rubbished Osborne’s veto, saying: “There would be a highly complex set of negotiations after a Yes vote, with many moving pieces. The UK wants to keep Trident nuclear weapons at Faslane and the Scottish Government wants a currency union – you can see the outlines of a deal.”
Bluff or not, if Osborne thought the move would crush support for independence it seemed to do the opposite, with a Survation poll suggesting that the intervention had boosted support for independence by six per cent – though No still led comfortably.
Claims that Better Together were trying to bully Scotland into voting No resonated, with support for Yes growing alongside continued criticism of the perceived negativity of Better Together’s campaign tactics.
Yes campaigners labelled the Better Together strategy Project Fear following Herald reports that the name had been created from within the Union campaign.
In March the Scottish Labour Party inserted more positivity into proceedings by unveiling its plans for the future of devolution, pledging to make the Scottish Parliament indissoluble and recommending powers to set a potentially unlimited progressive rate of tax on the highest earners.
The report also marked a change in language from Labour, moving towards a progressive defence of the Union focused on solidarity, and illustrated by the history of a shared welfare state.
Announcing the plans, Lamont said: “I believe that the Union exists to help pool and share resources across the United Kingdom – redistribution of wealth is at its heart. I believe this package of measures makes the Scottish Parliament more accountable and gives it real power to change the lives of the people of Scotland. Power lies with the people of Scotland, not with Westminster.”
The Conservative Party then went one step further with its own vision of devolution, vowing to give Scotland full power over income tax and greater control over welfare policy and VAT, as well as pledging to create a Scottish Fiscal Commission – independent of Government and responsible for macro-economic forecasting.
But perhaps inevitably the debate became more heated, with charges of negativity reaching a high point following comments from Lord George Robertson in April, with the former secretary general of Nato claiming that independence would be “cataclysmic”.
Robertson said: “Nobody should underestimate the effect all of that would have on existing global balances, and the forces of darkness would simply love it.”
He continued: “The loudest cheers for the break-up of Britain would be from our adversaries and from our enemies. For the second military power in the West to shatter this year would be cataclysmic in geopolitical terms.”
Robertson was roundly mocked for the comments on social media, with even members of Better Together
admitting they were unhelpful.
But if Yes seemed to gain the ascendancy in online campaigning, polls still showed a comfortable lead for the Union.
And with the vote now within touching distance, that lead still remains – even if commentators are split as to which way it will go.
The challenge in trying to take the disparate events of any year and hammer them into a coherent narrative is a difficult one.
But the last year of Scottish politics has been like no other in the country’s history. There is not space to include it all and some aspects will no doubt be given closer examination in future, such as the Treasury’s bizarre decision to use Lego figures to emphasise the financial benefits of a No vote.
Or Gordon Brown making his ‘first major intervention in the campaign’, over and over again.
At one point the front pages were domianted by the claim that independence could weaken defence against attacks from outer space.
In normal circumstances political parties clash and votes are won and lost. Sometimes governments fall.
But this year has seen political debate ignite across Scottish civil society, with chatter spreading out from the parliament and into the country’s classrooms, pubs and workplaces.
Campaign groups have proliferated, with Yes alone represented by interest groups from Academics for Yes, to Business for Yes to Polish for yes. There is now a ‘Cabbies for Yes’.
And as the campaign has continued much has been made of the grassroots campaign, particularly of the work done by the pro-independence groups.
For good or bad, the term ‘Cybernat’ has joined the common lexicon. The underlying wisdom of political campaigning has been shaken by the online debate, helped along by blogs like Bella Caledonia and National Collective.
The campaigns have grown, expanding beyond the normal line of political dialogue between politicians and press and a relatively small proportion of the population. The term chattering classes has become plural.
Voter turnouts have been falling for decades – across Scotland and the UK more widely – yet in a recent interview with Holyrood, Cabinet Secretary Mike Russell said that Salmond was expecting an 80 per cent turnout. It could be higher.
There has been a change in the way that people view politics, with the looming referendum, now just weeks away, bringing the reality of political decision-making and its importance to the population’s doorsteps.
So it seems likely that it will not be the claims and counter claims between the professionals of Yes and Better Together or the interventions from Bowie, Obama, JK Rowling, Billy Bragg and apparently even the Pope that will form the strongest memories from the past year.
It could be the effect of the online campaigning, the insight and nonsense swelling social media, as well as the real-world meetings taking place across the country that are remembered – that historians will pick over. Some hope it will be a springboard for political engagement.
But whatever the outcome, the next year promises to be as interesting as the last.