Alex Salmond's imperious reign leaves independence denied

Alex Salmond's imperious reign leaves independence denied

by Alan Sked
article from Monday 30, November, 2020

THOMAS JEFFERSON’S Declaration of Independence ran to 1,320 words. Alex Salmond’s equivalent, his 26 November 2013 white paper, entitled ‘A Better Future’, which outlined his vision of Scottish independence, ran to 670 pages. America’s case was presented elegantly. Scotland’s was something of a national embarrassment. It was not only almost interminable in length, but full of contradictions, mistakes, and wish-believe. Still, the Guardian predictably felt able to describe it as ‘a clear, firm and rather attractive retail offer to the Scottish electorate... it is as impressive as a document of this kind can ever be. It is nicely produced and clearly written.’ All 670 pages? Had it bothered to read them? 

Given the opinion polls for years beforehand the case for independence was almost certain to be rejected and rejected it duly was. Yet the full story of Salmond’s failure is not a straightforward one. He dominated the referendum campaign as he had already dominated Scottish politics for twenty years; towards the end of the campaign his opponents panicked thinking he could win. And despite the final outcome, the SNP still managed to destroy the Labour Party in Scotland in the general election the following year. If it was not quite a case of victory being snatched from the jaws of defeat it certainly felt like that to many Scot Nats and others. 

Most SNP leaders (although they didn’t call themselves that) remained in the job for about ten years. Salmond did two ten-year stints, the first from 1990-2000, the second from 2004-2014. (He may well have been planning to resume the party leadership for a third time when he was suddenly charged with serious criminal offences, charges that have raised the question if they were politically motivated.) Salmond, also unusually, was both an MP and an MSP. From 1987-2010 he represented Banff and Buchan at Westminster. He did not stand down as an MP in order to concentrate on his job as First Minister till 2010. Then, after resigning from Holyrood in the wake of his referendum defeat in 2014, he became MP for Gordon in the general election of 2015. It was after his defeat there in 2017 that he supposedly began to think about resuming the leadership at Holyrood for a third time. 

From all this it can be seen that Salmond was the ‘indispensable man’ for the SNP. Indeed in the 2007 Holyrood elections the party was described on the second regional list ballot paper not by its name but by the slogan ‘Make Alex Salmond First Minister’.  And thanks to the AMS electoral system that the Labour Party had introduced, the slogan worked. 

Salmond may have lacked Tony Blair’s good looks and sex appeal but like the latter he was smooth and arrogant, if also superficial. Like Blair, too, he was charming and articulate in debate, quick-witted in interview, and, as a media darling, at home in the limelight. He seemed a natural on television and was much sought after. He was the only Scottish politician to appear three times on ‘Have I got News for You’. He loved being seen with the rich and famous and included Sean Connery (the first James Bond was an SNP supporter) and the Prince of Wales among his friends. By 2014 a long time had passed since he had been expelled from the party as a member of the ‘79 Group’, set up in the wake of the general election catastrophe of that year to promote independence, socialism and republicanism. 

Salmond’s socialism, of course, was as thin as Tony Blair’s and in time it became diluted into the sort of social democratic welfarism which most Scots seemed to want. Not that Salmond was antipathetic to enterprise. He was for example an open admirer of RBS and HBOS, Scotland’s two great banks, and seemed to be a fan of Fred (the Shred) Goodwin, the RBS CEO who was knighted in 2004. Goodwin had built up RBS rapidly to become the world’s largest company by assets (£1.9 trillion) and the fifth largest bank by stock exchange valuation. Behind this record, however, lay risky judgement and blind ambition with the result that in 2008 RBS was a major casualty of the financial crash of that year and had to be effectively nationalised by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling, who would lead the unionist forces to success against Salmond in 2014. 

Meanwhile early in 2009, after Goodwin was forced to resign as CEO, RBS announced that its losses for 2008 had amounted to £24.1 billion, the largest annual loss in UK corporate history. Goodwin’s knighthood was annulled by the Queen on 1 February 2012 such was the public outcry against him. The explanation given by the Cabinet Office ran: ‘The scale and severity of the impact of his actions as CEO of RBS made this an exceptional case.’ People were well aware of Salmond’s previous admiration for Goodwin but he managed to escape any guilt by association. On the other hand, Goodwin surely provided an example of what the fates might yet have in store for high-flyers like himself. 

Salmond’s real achievement as party leader of the SNP during his first stint in that role was to reconcile the party to devolution, so that with some prominent exceptions  (Margo MacDonald, Jim Sillars), nationalists worked hard in 1997 to ensure that the devolution referendum was won. And once a Scottish Parliament came into existence, his strategy was always to have the SNP behave as a responsible opposition party as well as to develop policies on all sorts of issues it had previously only rarely had to deal with. His theme was that by gaining recognition as a genuine parliamentary presence, the party would gain sufficient support electorally one day to form a government. And that day, to almost everyone’s surprise, came in 2007.  Yet since the party had no majority, it could still not hold a referendum on independence. And the promise of holding such a referendum rather than just proclaiming independence after gaining an overall parliamentary majority was yet another strategy of Salmond’s. It would show that the party was moderate and not extremist.

By 2007 there was in any case no evidence of any rising tide for independence. Indeed, for the first few years after devolution arrived in 1999 it seemed as if George Robertson’s prediction might come true. Bad results in 2003 led to a leadership challenge to John Swinney the SNP Chairman and after more bad results in the 2004 Euro-elections he had to go. Labour may have been pedestrian in government but the economic situation was comparatively good, the press was hostile to the SNP and there were no obvious tensions between Edinburgh and London. The Nationalists, however, had reformed themselves. A 2004 conference called by Swinney streamlined elections inside the party, gave it a ‘leader’ rather than a chair, made ‘independence’ rather than ‘self-government’ its official aim and made leadership challenges more difficult. More importantly, the party now reached out to ‘new Scots’ and to Catholics (helped by the fact that their leader in Scotland, Cardinal Winning, had denounced devolution as ‘utterly useless’ after failing in a joint public campaign with the Daily Record and millionaire businessman, Brian Souter, to stop Dewar’s government from repealing Section 28 with its ban on the promotion of homosexuality in schools). Between 1991 and 1999, annual SNP party funds rose from £91,327 to £680,132.  Swinney had given his party a modern fighting machine, with a professional structure, while its ideology remained centre-left as New Labour moved to the centre-right.  

From 2007 the party as a minority government remained determined to appear efficient and moderate. It started, however, by cheering its supporters by changing its official title from Scottish Executive to Scottish Government (previous First Minister Henry McLeish had wanted to do this in 2001 but was overruled by Labour in London). Thereafter it quietly dropped its commitment to a local income tax and to an inflationary plan to give £2,000 to all first-time home buyers. Then came the ‘freebies’: tolls on the Tay and Forth road bridges were abolished, the tax on graduates was scrapped, council tax was frozen and NHS prescriptions were made free. The party behaved as Scotland’s defender against Labour and Tory cuts. Yet it was determined not to be seen as partisan. Local councils were compensated when council tax was frozen and relations with Westminster remained harmonious. One display of moderation came when the two Green MSPs voted with Labour, and the Lib Dems against the 2009 SNP budget that was supported by the Conservatives – leading to a tied vote. The Parliament’s presiding officer, Alex Fergusson, then followed protocol of supporting the status quo, casting his vote against the government and raising the prospect of a new election. But since the SNP was leading in the polls, the matter was resolved amicably within a week and a slightly revised budget was passed. The final impression created was the SNP had been attempting to govern responsibly while Labour had acted opportunistically. 

The only real controversy that occurred was over the release on compassionate grounds by the Justice Minister ,Kenny McAskill, of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the Lockerbie bomber, who was suffering from terminal cancer. This provoked a huge outcry in London and the USA, although the public reaction in Scotland was more mixed and became more relaxed over time. 

The record of Salmond’s first term as first minister, therefore, was fairly unremarkable. His 2007 consultation document, ‘Choosing Scotland’s Future’, moreover, although the first Scottish Government document to ever promote independence, laid just as much weight on making devolution work. 

He was also bolstered by the fact that an SNP government had not ushered in the apocalypse as many had foretold. The economy had not collapsed, there had been no flight of capital, schools and hospitals had remained open even if standards had continued to decline, and there were no deaths of the first born. So it was a case of ‘situation normal’, no need to panic. Hence, if Labour by 2011 was doing reasonably well in the polls, it was still trailing behind the SNP, now seen as united party, in touch with the people, keeping many of its promises and defending Scottish interests. Its slogan at the 2011 election was ‘Re-elect a Scottish government working for Scotland’. 

But what would happen if it got an overall majority? Would its hardline separatists prevail? In the words of Robb Johns and James Mitchell in their study of the SNP entitled ‘Takeover’: “The irony at the heart of the 2011 Scottish election, then, is that it was exactly the SNP’s easing of fears on the independence question that brought them the votes that might ultimately deliver it.”

The results of the 2011 election seemed almost incredible and the leaders of all three major parties resigned before the night was over. The SNP secured 69 seats, Labour 37, Tories 15, Lib Dems 5 and Others 3. Salmond’s party had won roughly 45 per cent of all votes cast.  It was a triumph and a totally unexpected one, which now allowed it to claim a mandate to seek a referendum on Scottish independence. 

There is some speculation that Salmond himself would have preferred maximum extended powers for Scotland within the UK rather than complete independence. He suggested that three choices might be offered to voters – the status quo, complete independence and ‘Devo Max’, that is to say Scotland would have the authority to run all government activity in Scotland save defence, foreign affairs and the currency. According to opinion polls the vast majority of Scots favoured this option as did many Scot Nat supporters. 

Possibly Salmond did too but David Cameron the new Tory prime minister who constitutionally had the authority to veto any demand for a referendum insisted there should be only one question and two choices: the status quo or independence. Since opinion polls were still showing 60 per cent against independence, he was sure that it would be defeated. Still, it was a huge gamble. He made three important concessions on the other hand. The Scottish Government could decide the date of the referendum, the wording of the question and the composition of the electorate. Nor was any minimum level of approval required for the vote to succeed. These concessions were madness, since they allowed the date to be postponed till 18 September 2014 and the question to be set in such a way as to make independence seem positive: ‘Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?’ The SNP could thus run a ‘Yes’ campaign, whereas a question such as ‘Should Scotland remain part of the United Kingdom?’ would have given the positive advantage to Westminster. The SNP also had plenty of time to organise. Finally, the voting age was lowered to 16 and anyone living in Scotland, regardless of nationality, could vote. Scots living outside Scotland on the other hand, were not allowed a vote. The SNP could hardly complain the referendum had been rigged against it. On the contrary, it was the No camp that suffered disadvantages. 

Cameron sealed his deal with Salmond and his deputy, Nicola Sturgeon, at St Andrew’s House in Edinburgh on 11 October 2012. The Yes camp was organised as ‘Yes Scotland’, the No Camp as ‘Better Together’. The latter included the major unionist parties and was spearheaded by former Labour Chancellor, Alistair Darling. Salmond led the Yes campaign ably assisted by Sturgeon. Yes Scotland was officially headed by Blair Jenkins, coincidentally the former head of News and Current Affairs at BBC Scotland. 

Since opinion polls, not to mention the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey, demonstrated hardly any difference in attitudes or values between English and Scots, what was the point of independence? Scotland already had a government of its own which ran most of her own affairs, generously subsidised by English taxpayers through the Scottish block grant and topped up by the Barnett Formula. What added value would independence bring? Could Scotland even afford it? 

At this point we must return to Salmond’s 670 page tome of 26 November 2013, ‘Scotland’s Future’, to find out.

Salmond described ‘Scotland’s Future’ as “the most comprehensive blueprint for an independent country ever published”. Independence was being sought, he explained, not “as an end in itself but rather as a means to changing Scotland for the better.” So what was on offer? 

First there were bribes: there would be a revolution in social care with women being encouraged to work since there would be 30 hours free childcare for pre-school children; the ‘bedroom tax’ would be abolished; universal credit would not be introduced; the minimum wage, tax credits and basic tax allowances would all rise with inflation; there would be a basic pension of £160 a week from April 2016 and the proposal to raise the age of retirement would be reviewed; the triple lock pension system would be retained; Royal Mail would be renationalised; corporation tax would be cut by 3 per cent; air passenger transport duty would be cut by 50 per cent; and free university tuition would continue. Since “Scottish public finances are healthier than those of the UK as a whole” (no mention of the Barnett Formula of course) there would be no need for tax rises. 

We shall return to the underlying economics of Salmond’s proposals presently but first other proposals should be mentioned. Constitutionally the country would remain a monarchy sharing the British head of state but it would receive a new, written constitution. All those born or living in Scotland would be eligible for Scottish citizenship and a Scottish passport. 

A new Scottish Broadcasting Corporation would be established – impartial, independent and creative of course – which would run the existing Gaelic programmes, Radio Scotland and a new television channel. This would be funded by a slice of the BBC licence fee income. BBC1 and BBC2 would continue to be shown. Programmes like Dr. Who and Eastenders would therefore not disappear and the new SBS would even join the European Broadcasting Union to allow Scotland to join the Eurovision Song Contest. Had the BBC been consulted? Presumably not. 

As far as foreign and defence policies were concerned, Scotland would open 70-90 embassies abroad, would more or less automatically become a new member state of the EU and claim a share of the British rebate, would remove the Trident submarine base from Faslane as quickly as possible but would remain a member of NATO and, irony of ironies, allow both nuclear powered and nuclear armed ships to enter Scottish ports. A new 15,000 strong Scottish Defence Force would be set up, concentrating on naval and air patrols to defend North Sea oil installations. There would also be a new Scottish intelligence service. No thought was given to the billions that would be required to find a replacement base for Trident or for the huge gap that would be created for NATO defences against Russia in the Northern Approaches to the Atlantic. It was merely assumed that the new Scotland would be welcomed into NATO and afforded its nuclear umbrella after all the disruption it would have caused to NATO strategy and its nuclear defences. 

Finally, the Scottish Government harboured the illusion that an independent Scotland would still be allowed to build British warships until it was informed: “The UK Government has made it clear it does not place contracts for complex warships with other states. Other than procurement activity undertaken during the World Wars, no complex warships for the Royal Navy were constructed outside the UK in the twentieth century and the UK Government remains committed to utilising strengths of UK industry in this specialist area.”

The same sort of naïveté was on display concerning the EU. The party had campaigned against EEC membership in the 1975 Referendum but, like Labour, had changed its attitude after the socialist EU Commission President, Jacques Delors, had promised to defeat Thatcherism. In 1988, therefore, the party adopted the oxymoronic slogan ‘Independence in Europe’ as its policy. Clearly the experiences of small states like Greece, Ireland and Cyprus during the 2010 financial crisis when they had to accept German Diktats to receive bailouts, had not been absorbed by SNP leaders who would now be happy to see Scotland represented by merely six or seven MEPs in a European Parliament of 700 and have no Scottish commissioner. In any case the European Commission made it abundantly clear that an independent Scotland would have to reapply for membership, wait in the queue behind other states, and stop receiving CAP payments. It would also have to leave the CFP and lose any share of the British rebate. Indeed, were it ever to be allowed to enter the EU it would have both to contribute to the British rebate and subsidise poorer East European states.  Salmond’s Government seemed hurt and astonished. 

If its view of foreign affairs seemed positively naive, its view of its economic situation was ludicrous. First, it assumed it would be allowed to take 90 per cent of North Sea Oil tax revenues whose value it greatly inflated. Salmond himself was a former RBS analyst who specialised in the economics of oil but he now destroyed any reputation for expertise in this field he ever had. First, he foresaw an oil boom whereas the Office for Budget Responsibility forecast a significant long-term decline (which of course is what happened). Salmond also predicted that oil revenues for 2017-18 would be between £41.5 billion and £57.1 billion. The OBR for its part predicted £33 billion and pointed out that another £35 billion would be needed over the coming decade to decommission old oil rigs and platforms. These figures completely undermined SNP plans to catch up economically with other small states. Here again, though, the numbers did not add up. In their calculations of the economic progress being made by these other states the SNP deliberately missed out the figures for the year 2008 as too volatile. 

Another controversial aspect of SNP economic planning was the question of how much of the British national debt of £1.2 trillion an independent Scotland would take over. The final figure would affect its borrowing powers and international credit worthiness. If population were made the criterion the sum would be somewhere between £4.3 billion and £5.5 billion and Scottish total expenditure only came to £63.7 billion. 

All this paled into insignificance, however, compared to Salmond’s real economic problem – which currency would an independent Scotland use? Salmond said there would be a currency union with the UK and that Scotland would use the pound. George Osborne as Chancellor, however, ruled this out. Salmond said an independent Scotland could use the pound anyway – like Panama used the US dollar. But this meant that Scotland could not set its own interest rates or print its own money. Perhaps it could start a new currency? But it had no Central Bank or gold or currency reserves. Perhaps it could use the euro? But it had to enter the EU first – and the EU demanded that applicant states should already have a functioning currency. So Salmond had no answer to his currency dilemma which Darling used to defeat him in their first televised debate. Nor could there be an answer. The economics of independence were a mix of wishful thinking and make-believe. 

The other question that was repeatedly asked was why the Scottish Government had not already introduced free child care for children below school age? It already had the power to do so. The answer was that until independence the thousands of women who would then be free to go out to work would have to pay income tax to the UK Exchequer. Pathetic. 

In many ways the future envisaged by the SNP was deliberately designed to be as like the past as possible. For example, it wanted to keep using no less than one third of all UK public bodies including the Bank of England, parts of the BBC and the National Lottery. It also wanted Funding Scotland to remain in UK research councils until told that these only funded UK research and UK researchers. Scotland would have to fund any collaboration itself.

In the end what was on offer was not really new. And if automatic EU membership had not been a pipe dream it would hardly have been independent either. Scots would have a European passport, a European currency – and European law would override Scottish law. So no Scottish sovereignty either. 

The referendum campaign itself obscured most of these issues which were of little interest to Yes supporters. Independence had become a religion to them and the referendum result was anticipated like the Second Coming. As the date approached the whole country was a sea of blue and white saltires and YES placards. All sorts of groups emerged to back independence and swarmed into all sorts of places often untouched by politics such as the huge housing schemes of the West of Scotland. Those with wealth or pensions or mortgages to protect feared chaos and economic disaster. Those who had no jobs or property felt that any alternative might be better than their present situation. Those who felt predominantly British would vote one way. Those who felt predominantly Scottish would vote another. 

Opinion polls throughout the long campaign had predicted the Yes camp would lose. But towards the end the gap narrowed and after a sensational poll in the Sunday Times on 12 September gave the Yes camp a lead of 51 per cent to 49 per cent, the party leaders at Westminster began to panic. The lugubrious Gordon Brown, who had previously seen himself as the saviour of the Labour Party and later as saviour of the world, now saw himself as the saviour of Scotland and arranged for the three unionist party leaders – Cameron, Miliband and Clegg – to sign a VOW which was printed on the front page of the Daily Record, promising ‘extensive new powers’ to Scotland if she voted No. Brown himself in a speech promised “a modern form of home rule within the United Kingdom”. Had Cameron agreed to Devo Max after all? The details were to be published by St. Andrew’s day (30 November 2014) and the legislation made ready by Burn’s Night (25 January 2015). The dramatics were probably unnecessary and in the event proved counterproductive. For the new powers for Scotland announced in January 2015 amounted merely to allowing Scotland to set income tax rates and bands, providing for some welfare benefits like attendance allowance and disability living allowance to be devolved, allowing a reduced Barnett formula to be continued, and providing for the transfer to the Scottish Government of the assets of the Crown Estates in Scotland and the revenues generated by them. Air passenger duty was also to be devolved. Cameron came to Edinburgh to unveil these concessions and later declared they would make the Scottish Parliament “the most powerful devolved assembly in the world”. 

Yet Scots were ungrateful. Too much of the welfare budget had not been devolved and for many Scots Devo Max meant Scotland running everything save defence, foreign affairs and the currency. Not that Cameron had actually promised Devo Max. Not that the Scottish Government would ever fully use its tax raising powers or future welfare ones either. 

But in the meantime Better Together had decisively won the referendum by 55 per cent to 45 per cent, a larger margin than anticipated. Fear of economic disaster proved the decisive issue. Darling had proved right to stress the currency question with all its implications. Most of rural Scotland voted No although large cities like Aberdeen and Edinburgh as well as smaller ones like Perth and Stirling also did so. The Yes camp found most of its support in the poorest areas – Dundee, Glasgow and the West of Scotland. The Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland all voted No. Although left-wingers tended to vote Yes, roughly speaking it was the unemployed and socially deprived who did so most of all. Affluent Scotland voted No.  

After the results were known Alex Salmond resigned as First Minister in favour of his deputy Nicola Sturgeon. He must have been very depressed. Later press reports indicated he had been expecting a Yes vote of over 60 per cent, not to mention massive media and financial support, none of which happened. Moreover, in the introduction to ‘Scotland’s Future’ he had labelled the referendum a “once in a generation opportunity”. The white paper itself stated: “It is the view of the current Scottish Government that a referendum is a once-in -a-generation opportunity”. Nicola Sturgeon used the phrase regularly in speech after videoed speech. This even developed into “once in a lifetime opportunity”. Yet the opportunity had been lost. 

David Cameron, struck his usual wrong note in his reaction to the result. He demanded ‘English votes for English laws’ at Westminster thus stocking up resentment in Scotland yet again. This, along with left-wing bitterness at Labour’s ‘betrayal’ by cooperating with the Tories in the Better Together operation, plus the national lack of appreciation for the new powers received as a result of the VOW, produced an unexpected but massive increase of membership for the SNP. By early 2015 it had reached over 100,000. There was also a swing of 30 per cent from Labour to SNP in opinion polls. Still when Cameron called an election on 7 May 2015 the Tory emphasis in its campaign was fear of the possibility of a Labour-SNP coalition to drive voters in England away from Labour. 

The results were unexpected. The predicted SNP landslide in Scotland duly came about but Labour was left with just a single seat. Gordon Brown had retired, but all its Scottish leaders such as douglas Alexander lost theirs. In England the results were equally dramatic. The Tories won an overall majority as their erstwhile coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats were annihilated. If the SNP gained 50 seats in Scotland, the Lib Dems lost 49 throughout the UK. Salmond of course was returned in Gordon.

If at first it did not look as if the results contained any direct implications for Scotland, this was in fact misleading. Just as Salmond in 2011 was forced to call a referendum on account of his unexpected overall Scottish parliamentary majority, David Cameron was now forced to implement his promise of 2013 to hold a referendum on British membership of the EU as a result of his unexpected majority at Westminster. And once again, just like Salmond, Cameron would lose the popular vote and feel compelled to resign. Brexit would now emerge as the key bone of contention between Holyrood and Westminster. 

This is the thirteenth part of Professor Sked’s series, here are the others:    

Part one – Mythology in the history of Anglo-Scots relations;       

Part two – From Auld Alliance to creating the Union;      

Part three – Scotland 1707-1914: The Union adjusts and consolidates;      

Part four – A loyal Scotland fights for Britain: 1707-1918;   

Part five – Union survives the War and evolves: 1918-1938      

Part six – United Britain was victorious in war – but fallacies about the interwar peace persist     

Part seven – The political peculiarities of interwar Scotland    

Part eight – Scotland and the Second World War   

Part nine – The rise of the SNP 

Part ten – Scotland under the Conservatives 1979-1997, Part one  

Part eleven – Scotland under the Conservatives 1979-1997, Part two  

Part twelve – Labour’s road to perdition – Devolution for Scotland

See Also: When Scots enslaved fellow Scots 

Alan Sked was educated at Allan Glen's School in Glasgow, before going on to study Modern and Medieval History at the University of Glasgow, followed by a DPhil in Modern History at Merton College, Oxford. Sked taught at the London School of Economics where he became a leading authority on the history of the Hapsburg Empire, also teaching US and modern intellectual history and the history of sex, race and slavery. Alan Sked is now Emeritus Professor of International History at the London School of Economics.   

Photo by Scottish Government - originally posted to Flickr as The first SNP Scottish Cabinet 2007, CC BY 2.0,





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