In a Europe now seething with discontent, it is hard to spot a more popular democratic politician than Scottish Nationalist leader Alex Salmond. He has the ability, stamina and ruthlessness which are now in short supply in a political class whose members have glided into sinecures without needing to work hard or come into much contact with the public.
But let’s not get carried away. Salmond has it easy in key respects. A block grant from London means that his party, the SNP, doesn’t need to run a budget from the taxes of its own citizens; in the recession years, a supposedly tight-fisted Tory government has shown marked liberality in its approach to financing Scotland’s public expenditure.
Secondly, nowhere else in Britain, outside Tower Hamlets, has an elected leader had bureaucrats eating out of his hands to the same extent. Sir Peter Housden, the Englishman who heads the Scottish civil service, has torn up the rules requiring a neutral bureaucracy. Indeed, in many ways it is now a key campaigning arm of the SNP.
Add to these advantages a £4 million pound donation to the pro-independence ‘Yes for Scotland’ campaign coffers from a SNP couple who are now multi-millionaires as a result of a big lottery win. The Yes side has come from almost 20 percentage points behind 16 months ago to almost overtaking its pro-union rival ‘Better Together’. Shocking for some, this new landscape was unveiled in an ICM poll commissioned by Scotland on Sunday.
The day before Salmond’s anti-elitist populism had earned him a respectful profile in the New York Times and, earlier in the month, he had addressed the IMF in Washington DC. A much sleeker Salmond has lost his paunch thanks to a crash diet. It is even possible to imagine the 59-year-old sprinting across the courtyard of Edinburgh castle to proclaim independence in March 2016. While there is total confusion about what currency would be used under independence, Salmond has ensured that the handover ceremony has already been worked out in loving detail.
If Salmond’s cause triumphs in the referendum on 18 September, poets and balladeers will no doubt bathe a campaign (approaching its third year!) with a heroic aura. But it has actually been very dull. In what is a marathon Scottish conversation about the future, Salmond refuses to debate with Better Together’s head, Alistair Darling, perhaps the No side’s strongest asset. In November, the release of the SNP’s White Paper for the future was a damp squib as it was 360 pages of aspirations rather than concrete and fully-costed set of proposals. Yet the civil service obligingly made it freely available to every Scottish household wanting copy.
The only real drama occurred on February 13th with the lightning visit to Edinburgh of the Chancellor, George Osborne. His purpose was to categorically rule out the currency union which the SNP had been calling for knowing how fragile a separate Scottish currency would be. It stubbornly persists despite the idea being shot down as deeply impractical by numerous economists. What would be in this for the rest of the UK Osborne asked? ‘Nothing but exposure’ was his reply and the other main Westminster parties agreed with him.
The Better Together campaign had one of its best weeks, mobilising academic heavyweights like Adam Tomkins, professor of public law at Glasgow university, to demolish the proposal.
The SNP was thought to have scored a mighty own goal when its leadership vowed to repudiate Scotland’s share of the national debt unless a currency union was conceded. But support for the Yes side rose and has yet to stop climbing two months on. This is despite the warning of a plethora of businesses with their customer base in the rest of the UK, that they will be compelled to relocate in an uncertain economic climate.
The risk-taking and defiant Salmond chimes well with an edgy and dumbed down popular culture that has little grasp of economic realities. A generation ago, a more practical electorate would probably have turned on Salmond for risking their livelihoods so as to grab a place for himself in history. But Scotland is now a land where a media culture based around a cult of celebrity, the ridiculing of religion, and rampant consumerism shapes public awareness. It is thus tailor-made for populism.
Many Scots, lacking a long-term outlook, adore the melodrama in Salmond’s theatrical production without thinking of what happens when the show is over and they trudge out into the cold streets. Salmond is a master impresario who has built a popular front of people who believe they can fulfil themselves via independence. They include idealists and authoritarians as well as numerous intellectuals, entertainers and media folk who not long before were solidly for Labour when it held the purse strings. The splenetic Kevin McKenna from his weekly perch in the Sunday Observer is a classic example.
Other professional folk have been offered subsidies and cameo roles in the Yes campaign. Robin McAlpine, a former publicity officer of Universities Scotland is a mainstay behind the Jimmy Reid foundation, named after a popular communist trade-unionist. It has just come out with a 4-day week plan and its stable-mate the Common Weal foundation energetically backs a high-tax largely state-controlled economy.
It is unclear how reinforcing a leviathan state will benefit the 32.7 percent of Glasgow’s population who were economically inactive in 2012. But it is from downscale voters, men between the ages of 25 and 50, and often previously Labour voters, that the surge for independence has come. Alongside them, and sometimes overlapping are Irish-minded and south Asian minorities. They are split between a younger cohort imbued with a “rebel” or “anti-imperialist” culture and an older one more alert to the socio-economic pitfalls awaiting a post-British Scotland.
The Yes campaign is highly visible on the ground. SNP activists, in partnership with radical leftists play the Pied Piper role winning the ear of lower-income groups with promises of better times when freedom comes and reminding voters of alleged Labour betrayals and Tory infamy towards Scotland.
It is easy to fault the No campaign for being reactive and almost invisible at times. It is drawn from pro-Union parties short of activists and cash, heading towards a likely drubbing at the hands of the SNP in the European elections, and reluctant in the past to drop multiculturalism and make a convincing case for Britishness.
It is not easy for Better Together to challenge the rival camp because paradoxically it and they agree on so much: deep involvement with the EU, micro-managing the lives of citizens, and continuing high levels of immigration. A full frontal attack on the SNP’s big state paternalism might only open fissures on the Union side.
The Yes side would not be as strong if their rivals had avoided elementary mistakes: the Lib Dem decision to go into coalition with the Tories has finished the party as a serious force in Scotland for at least a decade; the Tories missed an opportunity to re-invent themselves by spurning the call of one of their abler figures Murdo Fraser to create a pro-market Scottish-minded centre-right force in 2011. Scottish Labour were too parochial and light in talent to wake up to the enormity of the SNP challenge in the last few years.
Similarly, it is unfair to castigate David Cameron for allowing the Salmond insurrection to run out of control. Agreeing to a lengthy referendum campaign lasting years was probably the chief error on the union side. The SNP had the campaigning zealots. It didn’t.
Cameron was cut out to flourish in a time of stability not insurgency. He is unlucky in coming up against Salmond whose populism matches the contemporary mood (and not just in Scotland) and who has been totally devoted throughout his adult life to achieving one transcendent goal.
The SNP is a cult, not a conventional political force. Its parliamentarians and grassroots activists will follow Salmond with quasi-religious devotion however illogical some of his ideas or grubby his exercise of power is behind the scenes. This messianic outfit is suited for an era when a grievance culture reigns supreme, and is too often directed at the larger partner in the Union on flimsy evidence.
With five months of campaigning left, the best hope of the SNP tide being halted is for a counter-mobilisation to occur. A new campaign group is needed not from the tired political world but from the many practically-minded Scots who work hard for a living and have a long-term perspective. Quite a few already sense that they will fare terribly once demagogy is institutionalised in a post-Union Scotland.
Will they stand up and counter a bogus anti-elitism, reminding disorientated Scots what is needed to make Scotland stable and successful, and making clear that the SNP diet of populism masks an absence of any real Scottish blueprint for the future? Or will they be content to be slowly boiled alive like the proverbial frog until any spark of resistance vanishes?
Tom Gallagher’s book ‘Divided Scotland‘ appeared in 2013 (Argyll Publications). His next, ‘Europe’s Path to Crisis: Disintegration via Monetary Union’ (Manchester University Press) appears this summer.