Only three months ago, some Downing Street aides dared to believe that the Scottish people would vote against independence by a margin of 60 to 40 per cent. Only three weeks ago, strategists in the Better Together campaign believed that if the vote were held then, they would defeat Alex Salmond by 55 to 45 per cent. But they also detected the first dangerous signs on the ground of a shift towards Yes, and they were right.
Last weekend’s opinion poll, showing the Yes camp ahead for the first time, was a 10,000-volt shock to the political establishment at Westminster. David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg knew they all had an awful lot to lose from a break-up of the Union.
As they relaunched their plans for more devolution for Scotland in a panic, the three main parties just about managed a united front. Behind the scenes, inevitably, the blame game began. With hindsight, it was clear that “devo max” should also have been on the ballot paper, as that is what most Scots want. Mr Cameron gambled that a straight Yes/No choice would settle the issue for a generation, avoiding a messy three-way split vote, or a vote in favour of “devo max” becoming a giant stepping-stone to independence.
Cleverly, Mr Salmond made Yes a vote for change and No a vote for No change. So belatedly, the three main Westminster parties had to change the terms of trade. “This week we took the status quo off the ballot paper,” said one No campaigner.
Mr Salmond’s hope of unstoppable momentum towards a Yes vote was also checked as the spotlight fell on to jobs, the future of Scotland’s financial services sector and prices in the shops. The prospect of a Yes vote persuaded businesses reluctant to speak out to break cover. This brought relief to the No camp. The result of Thursday’s referendum could still be very close but Better Together hopes the focus on pocket book issues will tip the scales in its favour.
Yet it might prove a short-lived victory. Mr Salmond has “won” the campaign, and shaken Westminster to its foundations. A narrow margin in favour of No would not settle the independence question at all. There would be pressure for another referendum in five to 10 years. Nor would further devolution stem the tide towards independence. This week’s vote would be a staging post to inevitable breakaway.
In pictures: Politicians scramble for Scotland
In pictures: Politicians scramble for Scotland
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Labour Party leader Ed Miliband speaks during a campaign meeting in Cumbernauld in Glasgow
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British Prime Minister David Cameron gestures as he speaks during a visit to Scottish Widows offices in Edinburgh
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Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond campaigns for a Yes vote in east Edinburgh, Scotland
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John Prescott campaigns for a 'No' vote in the referendum on Rutherglen main street in Glasgow
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Liberal Democrat Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg talks to the media during a campaign visit to the market place in Selkirk
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Better Together campaign leader Alistair Darling speaks to the public in Glasgow
Whatever the result, the three main parties would be foolish not to learn the lessons of the referendum campaign. Mr Salmond has brilliantly hoovered up the anti-political establishment vote, appealing to the millions who can no longer stomach “politics as usual”. True, Scotland may be more tired of austerity than England. True, the hatred of the “toxic Tories” is more visceral north of the border. But the anti-politics mood is just as strong in many parts of the rest of Britain. This has huge implications for next May’s general election.
It is why the other winner of the Scottish referendum campaign will be Nigel Farage. If Mr Salmond can channel the anti-politics sentiment behind Scottish nationalism, why can’t Ukip do the same with its populist brand of English nationalism?
Mr Farage is a very clever politician, perfectly capable of making an attractive “plague on both your houses” pitch that will strike a chord with millions. The defection of Douglas Carswell shows that Ukip is not going to disappear. The Tories’ hopes of reaping the benefit of a recovering economy may be shattered.
The dramatic events in Scotland show that “politics as usual” is over. If the Westminster parties don’t get that quickly, they will do very badly next May in what will now be the most unpredictable election since 1945.
Clegg leads the way in connecting with voters
Shock news – Nick Clegg has done something good for politics. His decision to do a weekly phone-in on LBC radio was derided by the other parties. They saw it as a desperate move.
But the Liberal Democrat leader has forced his critics to follow his lead as all the parties start to realise they need to connect with the voters. Anyone would think there’s an election coming.
“Call Clegg” has paved the way for a monthly LBC phone-in in which voters can “Badger Boris” for the Conservatives and “Harry Harman”, Labour’s deputy leader.
Now we can add “Phone Farage” to the list after the Ukip leader started a fortnightly show yesterday. Mr Clegg cheekily branded Mr Farage a “catch-up Charlie”, accusing him of “not putting a proper [weekly] shift in” so he could continue to enjoy his “lavish expenses” as an MEP.
Surely, it’s time for David Cameron and Ed Miliband to pop into the LBC studio, so they can be quizzed by ordinary people instead of the carefully vetted audiences from whom they normally take questions.Reuse content