Scottish independence: How the battle for Scotland’s future was won – and lost

It all seemed a foregone conclusion until a remarkable poll showed the Yes vote was ahead. Then the referendum campaign kicked off – noisily, sometimes violently, but somehow also gloriously

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The Independent Online

Nobody in Westminster suspected that when the summer was over they would be peering into the abyss, contemplating what would happen if the United Kingdom was broken apart.

The unwritten rule for referendums in the UK is that political leaders call them if and only if they are sure they will get the answer they want. It was in that spirit that David Cameron agreed that the Scots could have their day in the polling booths, never supposing that he might be accused of being the Prime Minister who recklessly gambled on the future of a union that has served the British nations for 307 years.

He was so certain that the Scots could be relied on to vote to stay in the union that he insisted on giving them a straight choice, in or out. Alex Salmond wanted to include a half-way option, nicknamed “devo max”, under which Scotland would remain in the UK but with more powers transferred from Westminster to the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood. David Cameron did not want that, because he assumed – rightly, no doubt – that there would be a heavy majority for devo max, which would compel him to cede more authority to a body controlled by the SNP, and would also trigger demands further south for an English Parliament, or some other form of devolution for England.


As it is, he had to concede devo max anyway, in the final rush. He also promised not to end the Barnett Formula, devised in the 1970s, under which the UK government automatically spends more per head in Scotland than in England – thereby inviting demands from parts of England for some sort of equivalent deal.

“It’s a terrible mess,” one of his ministers lamented yesterday. “I do hope he’s not going to get all the blame for this, because it is not all his fault.”

To be fair to the Prime Minister, it is not all his fault. David Cameron was not the only one who entered this campaign expecting a landslide victory for those who wanted the union to stay intact: everybody down south who had an opinion on the matter seemed to agree.

Perhaps, in retrospect, the alarm bells should have started ringing in Westminster when the SNP pulled off a startling victory in May 2011 that gave them outright control of the Scottish Parliament, but the view in the south was that the Scots were indulging in a protest between general elections, not signalling a desire to get shot of the United Kingdom altogether. This was born out by opinion polls that gave the No camp a lead of around 20 percentage points.

Also, the pattern from previous referendums was that voters who did not have a strong opinion either way at the outset either abstained or were guided in how they voted by the political leaders and commentators who commanded public trust.

A YES campaign Statue of Liberty on display in Niddrie, a suburb of Edinburgh (AP)

In the Scottish case, the leaders of all three political parties acted in an uneasy state of agreement that they thought would make the No  vote a certainty. Every London-based national newspaper opposed a Scottish breakaway. Goliath was with the union.

I was told by one of the key figures in the No camp that the question was not whether they would win but by how much. “We need a gap that is so big that it will put the independence question to bed for a generation,” he said.

The Tories sensibly decided not to try to run the anti-independence campaign themselves but to hand the lead role to the Labour Party, the SNP’s main rival north of the border. There was, however, a condition. According to people close to Gordon Brown, he was formally asked to stay out of the campaign, despite his status as the UK’s last Scottish Prime Minister, because after the 2010 general election it was assumed that Brown was damaged goods.

The job of fronting the campaign therefore went to Alistair Darling, an experienced politician with a record of walking into political storms and spreading calm. When Darling took over a government department, it usually vanished from the headlines. He was a reassuring figure, but not one to generate excitement.

A yes supporter talks with a man and a woman with a Union flag in George Square, just a few hours before polling stations will close in the Scottish independence referendum (Getty Images)

Better Together moved into splendid offices in 5 Blythswood Square, Glasgow, where the RAC Club used to be based. Its entrance was designed in 1908 by Charles Rennie Macintosh, who may also have been the designer of its lovely panelled entrance hall. Across the way was the Blythswood Hotel, with its magnificent restaurant that was once a ballroom.

The man brought in to organise the campaign was Blair McDougall, a former Whitehall special adviser from the Tony Blair wing of the Labour Party, who ran David Miliband’s unsuccessful leadership campaign in 2010. He assembled a staff experienced in running Westminster-style campaigns.

On 13 February, with the polls showing little movement, Better Together delivered what they were sure would be the killer blow. George Osborne formally warned the Scots, in a speech, that despite Alex Salmond’s promise about keeping the pound, there was no prospect of a currency union between an independent Scotland and the rump of the UK.

“The pound isn’t an asset to be divided up between two countries after a break-up as if it were a CD collection,” he pronounced. The Better Together campaign also triumphantly announced that the Chancellor’s message would be repeated within days by Ed Balls, for Labour, and Danny Alexander, from the Liberal Democrats.

Surely, the alarming prospect of Scotland cut adrift without a currency to call its own would bring all wavering voters over the Better Together side – particularly as it made Alex Salmond look like a man making promises he was in no position to deliver. His optimistic forecast for future oil revenue and his bald claim that an independent Scotland could keep its place in the EU without having to reapply for membership were also looking flakey.

But to great consternation in the Better Together camp, George Osborne’s bombshell did not have the anticipated effect. The only movement in opinion polls was in the opposite direction, with one poll putting Better Together on 54 per cent and Yes Scotland on 46 per cent.

Ryan Randall plays the bagpipes outside a polling station in Edinburgh, Scotland (Reuters)

Meanwhile, the Yes campaign had set itself up in a basement around the corner in Hope Street, under the direction of Blair Jenkins, a former Director of Broadcasting at STV.

In place of a standard election campaign, they ran an operation much more like the one that first took Barack Obama into the White House, with heavy emphasis on the social media. Knowing that about a third of the electorate was set against independence, and a smaller number was committed to voting yes, they aimed their message at the don’t knows or don’t usually vote.

While the No campaign gave out heavy-sounding warnings about the dire consequences of breaking up the Union, the Yes camp discreetly claimed ownership of the Saltire and bagpipes. To vote Yes was patriotic, to vote No was to give in to the bully boys from London was their message. Their front man, Alex Salmond, never looked like a campaigner who was far behind in the polls. Throughout, he talked as if he expected to win.

There were setbacks of course – most notably during the first of the two live television debates, on 5 August. Beforehand, it had been widely assumed that the ebullient Mr Salmond would trounce the soft spoken Mr Darling – a view that Mr Salmond seemed to carry with him into the STV studio, as if he believed that passion and the big picture would be enough to see off his opponent. But Mr Darling pulled him apart by demanding answers to the practical questions about what currency an independent Scotland would use, and how he could be sure it would be allowed into the EU.

Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond gives the thumbs up after voting in the Scottish referendum in Aberdeenshire, Scotland (EPA)

The second time around, on 25 August, Mr Salmond came armed with a response to the main question. Scotland, he said, would use the pound whether England liked it or not. As Mr Darling tried to explain why it would not work to have a currency unsupported by a central bank, he seemed to lose his way. This time, it was passion that prevailed over detail.

Even then, though the gap was narrowing, the outcome did not seem in serious doubt – until an opinion poll less than two weeks ago suggested that the Yes campaign might actually win, sending the pound tumbling to a new low against the dollar, and causing panic in Westminster’s ranks.

Ed Miliband’s prompt reaction was to contact Downing Street and let David Cameron know that he was going to give Prime Minister’s Questions a miss to campaign in Scotland instead. Mr Cameron decided that he had better be in Scotland too, rather than in London taking question from Harriet Harman. Nick Clegg joined the club, and three simultaneous visits to Scotland took place in different parts of the country.

The other unexpected development was the triumphal return of Gordon Brown, who moved into action to promise that there would be an accelerated programme of devolution if Scotland stayed in the Union. Downing Street promptly welcomed his intervention. It was the first of several appearances in which Mr Brown introduced a degree of passion that had been so lacking in the No campaign.

But out in the streets, there was no question which way emotion was running. One cabinet minister who visited Scotland on Wednesday came back shaken by the passion of the pro-independence campaigners, wondering if Scotland was already lost – and just what the reaction further south would be, if it was.