Things might not be looking good for Alex Salmond, but Scotland needs its leader to fight until the end

Resentment will be greater if the Yes side feel that their leaders let them down

Now why did I tune in to BBC One on Wednesday night to watch the opening ceremony for the Commonwealth Games? Not, I regret to say, in the hope of rekindling any residual 2012 Olympic spirit, nor to revisit the glories of Glasgow as a television tourist.

I switched on out of base curiosity – in an attempt to divine, in a Kremlinological sort of way, what signals this most international and multicultural of events might send about the Scottish independence referendum.  

Oh yes, I know that the Commonwealth Games, like all major world sporting events (really?), has been designated a strictly politics-free zone. But only football seems to achieve this – there was not a peep, that I could detect, about Crimea or the Falklands in all the commentary on Russia and Argentina in the World Cup.

The truth is that, with Scotland’s referendum less than two months away, the very holding of the Games in Glasgow can, and will, be interpreted as conveying a political message. A successful Games will be seen either – if you want an independent Scotland – as proof that the Scots have it in them to be a self-standing modern nation. Or, if you stand by the Union, it will show how far Scotland relies on London’s patronage. If anything goes seriously wrong (and an outbreak of Norovirus before the athletes arrived was not a brilliant start), I suspect that Scotland will take the rap.


So what did I learn from the Opening Ceremony? Well, it seemed an altogether smaller, more intimate, less – how shall I put this? – split-second professional operation than London 2012. Most of all, though, it came across as a somewhat awkward synthesis of Scots identity (both innovative and clichéd), and Union rule. Could the Red Arrows not have left out the red smoke? Could the Queen not have presented herself as more Queen of Scotland, than sovereign of the Union, as she appeared to me?

As for Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond – who is, after all, the chief cause of the current tensions – he seemed to me well below his usual ebullient self. Whether this was because he was under strict orders to keep politics out of it, or because he senses, from the mood among his fellow Scots, that his cause is already lost, we shall probably never know. But it was hard not to feel I was glimpsing the First Minister, just a little deflated and diminished.

It is not over yet, of course, by a long way, and maybe the Commonwealth Games and the summer weather are simply allowing for a truce before the final battle is joined. But Salmond’s demeanour suggested that some damage has already been done to the cohesion, not just of the Union, but of Scotland, regardless of how the votes stack up on 18 September.

There was a widespread view, back in 2012 when the Edinburgh Agreement facilitated this referendum, that the UK would show how these things are done. Spain might have its problems with Catalans and Basques, and Belgians might be on the edge of break-up, but we would avoid the bitterness of separatism, and in the unlikely event that there were to be a break-up, then it would be velvety and sealed with a gentlemanly handshake.

And so it was, for as long as the powers-that-be remained confident of an easy majority for No. When Scottish interest in independence exceeded Westminster’s expectations, however, and Salmond and his team started to look capable of running an actual country, the gloves came off.

You could probably time that change to last February, when the Chancellor said that an independent Scotland would have to think again if it wanted to use the pound. Or you might cite the dog-in-the-mangerish warnings from London that an independent Scotland would not be able to count on instant membership of the EU. This is a bit rich coming from a UK government that is using some of the same arguments as are heard from Alex Salmond to justify greater distance, even divorce, from Brussels.

It is regrettable that a divorce, if it comes to that, with Scotland is already threatening to become an ill-tempered scrap over property and children. But please, Alex Salmond, don’t throw in the towel now, even if your cause looks doomed. Romantic it may be, but Scottish independence is also a fight that must be fought to the end.

It already seems possible that the divisions exposed by the campaign will carry over into future generations. But the resentment will be all the greater, and more dangerous, if those who sought independence feel that their leaders let them down at the last.


A Litvinenko inquest is good news, but might not help

It is not just in the matter of Scottish independence that the UK is falling down in its claims to offer a model of “good governance”. A far more heinous example is provided by the Litvinenko affair, and the utterly reprehensible delay (seven years, eight months and counting) in holding anything resembling an inquest into the still unexplained death of this Russian spy turned British national.

Next week, following a decision by the Home Secretary (delayed, of course), the moribund inquest will be elevated into a public inquiry – which should have happened long ago. How many more years the whole process takes is anyone’s guess.

Nor will we necessarily find out any more than we would have done from the judge-led inquest that was the last non-effort to establish the truth. The difference is that a public inquiry can consider sensitive intelligence evidence (in secret), whereas an inquest may  not consider it at all.

My impression is that the UK intelligence services (who “ran” Litvinenko for the last years of his life) have been dragged kicking and screaming to this point, and will vouchsafe nothing that contradicts the story so far. This is that President Putin and/or the Russian state ordered the killing of the erstwhile spy, and are now sheltering whoever arranged and administered the radioactive poison.

The British public keeps being told that, when this theory is given the imprimatur of a judge, relations with Russia will plunge to unprecedented depths. I find this reasoning absurd.

There is another explanation for the reluctance of the UK authorities to hold an inquiry. And this is that, if done properly, it will cast doubt on almost every element that has so far been treated as fact – from Kremlin culpability to the poisoning by tea at a Mayfair hotel, perhaps even to the death as murder.

The risk now is that the terms of the inquiry will be so narrowly drawn (remember the Hutton Inquiry on Iraq), and that contrary evidence will be kept so well hidden, that we end up  “knowing” no more than we do now. Let’s hope those fears are unfounded.