It was a formidable coalition without precedent in the history of modern Scotland. Alex Salmond had assembled a mighty court, a new establishment-in-waiting, whose qualifications for entry were influence or money and unquestioning devotion.
Salmond had the full apparatus of the Edinburgh civil service behind him – a politicised machine dedicated for the last two years to a single cause. His bureaucracy was not above challenging the integrity of the Scottish institutions, as in the recent attempt to coerce the principal of St Andrews University into “clarifying” her sceptical views on independence.
Most business leaders either signed up for the cause and were rewarded, or kept their heads below the parapet. A key player and major financier was bus magnate and evangelical Christian Brian Souter, who once organised a national referendum of his own, opposing teaching about homosexuality. The CBI in Scotland, which should have spoken frankly about its perception of the risks of independence, was silenced at an early stage and played no meaningful role in the campaign.
At the court of King Alex, the country’s writers and artists were among the more obliging servants, organising themselves into a “National Collective”. The few dissidents in the literary community were treated with contempt. One who declared publicly that she was voting No was accused of being motivated by greed.
Likewise, there were few breaches in the wall of the Scottish commentariat – the loose alliance of newspaper columnists and ubiquitous media pundits whose commitment bordered on the fanatical.
Journalists have a duty to question, writers and artists to challenge, civil servants to remain impartial, academic institutions and businesses should enjoy freedom from threat; but in the deeply unhealthy society of pre-referendum Scotland, none of the usual customs and practices seemed to apply.
The totalitarian drift of the project, in which dissent was ridiculed or crushed, alienated some of us who were initially broadly sympathetic to the cause (that “gentle and civilised nationalism” defined and espoused by the actor Andrew Cruickshank) but became gradually disillusioned by the compliance expected of us.
There were two reasons for the increasingly submissive condition of the MacChattering classes. The first was the overwhelming dominance of Salmond himself. Despite his avuncular public persona, carefully nurtured over the years, he is in reality an authoritarian figure. The Yes side characterised the unionist case as “Project Fear” for its insistence on pointing out the dangers of Scotland going it alone. But most of the fear was spread by Salmond and his entourage as they exercised colossal powers of patronage – to give and to withhold.
The second reason was, and remains, the abject condition of the Labour Party in Scotland, which has consistently failed to provide effective opposition to such ill-conceived SNP schemes as the democratically unaccountable national police force and the routine arming of its officers. Johann Lamont, the Labour leader, though an effective organiser, has been no match for Salmond as a parliamentary performer or public personality, and was kept largely out of harm’s way until the final days of the campaign.
Crippled by poor leadership and lack of confidence, Labour watched helplessly as the SNP assiduously wooed some of the country’s poorest people, the “economically inactive” in the housing estates. They did so with remarkable success. It is no coincidence that, of the 32 local authority areas, the four which voted Yes were among the most disadvantaged in the country. They were full of Labour voters who felt abandoned by their own party and by the political system in general, and calculated that they had nothing to lose by voting for independence. These dispossessed people were uninformed about a neglected fact of the SNP government’s record in office: that the ruling party has never targeted the poor for help, preferring to introduce benefits and concessions on a universal basis.
How would they have fared at the court of King Alex? Would the poor have been given the special treats denied them for the past seven years? Or, having served their purpose, would they have been left to make the tea for the important people, such courtiers as writers and journalists, while the civil servants busied themselves and the many tame actors and comic singers performed entertaining little turns in the evening? We will never know.
We will never know because the SNP/Yes strategy ultimately misfired. It attracted 30 per cent of Labour voters and, without the impassioned speeches of Gordon Brown, who is widely respected, would have attracted more.
But most of the Scottish people do not live in peripheral urban estates. They live in small to medium-sized towns, or in rural areas, and most of them voted No for a variety of reasons. One of them was a repugnance with the oppressive atmosphere in which the campaign was conducted. Salmond insisted on calling it “joyous”, when he knew that No supporters were afraid to identify themselves for fear of reprisal. He even managed to find something “joyous” about the intimidation of BBC staff outside their studios.
There is, however, nothing joyous about his abrupt downfall. After so many years as cock of the north, he is gone in a trice, leaving his subjects bewildered and bereft. His court has, overnight, become just another unfinished Scottish folly to gaze at in wonder.
In this vacuum, there is an opportunity for a cleaner, more collaborative politics, in which the values of the civil service are restored, institutions are respected and the Scottish press regains its sceptical voice. Labour has an opportunity to re-establish itself as a credible force in this new Scotland. Will the party grasp it?
Kenneth Roy edits the online Scottish Review
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