Living apart, together

John Osmond examines what two books on the Scottish debate tell us about today’s independence referendum

Given pride of place in the state room of Bute House, Alex Salmond’s official residence in Edinburgh’s New Town, is a portrait of Tom Johnston, the Labour MP and wartime Secretary of State for Scotland. In his Road to Referendum Iain Macwhirter reports that the SNP leader and First Minister is especially proud of this painting, by Sir James Gunn, which he shows to all his visitors. Yet, as Macwhirter also says, it begs the question why Salmond wants a politician who loathed Scottish Nationalists to be staring down at him as he hosts official engagements.

He explains it’s because of Tom Johnston’s stature and the status he achieved when ruling Scotland, combined with his social democratic political philosophy. Johnston was Labour’s most successful Scottish politician, a campaigning journalist and a Red Clydesider. He turned the wartime Scottish Office into a virtual government, with sweeping powers over the economy, health, housing, and renewable energy with his creation of the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board. Despite his left-wing radicalism Churchill appointed him because he was the best man for the job. Indeed, Churchill described him as the “King of Scotland”.

Alex Salmond would not object if the same were said of him. Probably he would be quite pleased. Macwhirter calls him “the most dangerous man in Britain”, which doubtless he also finds pleasing. And it cannot be denied that, almost singlehandedly, he has steered Scotland into a position where on 18 September he could cause more havoc to the British state than was ever achieved by Bonaparte, Kaiser Wilhelm, or Hitler.


Certainly the SNP would not be where it is today without Salmond. When he first became leader, in 1990, the party was wracked by divisions and political failures following the 1979 referendum debacle. Macwhirter describes how Salmond led his party away from fundamentalism into an accommodation with devolution. Consequently he has been able to present independence in a reassuring way to the Scottish electorate. His has been the gradualist, low road towards independence. Along the way he has embraced the Queen, sterling, MI6, and Nato (albeit without Trident). Although he would sever political ties, he would keep the currency, monarchy, social ties, Europe and defence – or, as he puts it, the other “five unions”.  Indeed, he went out of his way to try and ensure ‘Devo Max’ was a third option on the referendum ballot paper. In failing to allow his wish UK Prime Minister David Cameron may have made the worst misjudgement of his political career.

In this journey a crucial moment was the crafting of the 1997 legislation that created the Scottish Parliament. Macwhirter points to a crucial change in the scheme compared with the 1979 proposal. In the 1997 White Paper Scotland’s Parliament Holyrood would have responsibility for everything save that was specifically reserved to Westminster. “Power devolved was not power retained in this document,” Macwhirter observes. “It went far beyond the 1970s devolution White Papers by specifying that only the powers reserved to Westminster should be spelled out in the legislation. Everything else would be assumed to be devolved to the 129 members of the Scottish Parliament.”

The significance was little appreciated at the time. Yet it was a critical ceding of sovereignty. It has taken Wales 15 years to approach the same position. Following the 2011 referendum in which the Welsh people approved the devolution of primary legislative powers, the Silk Commission has now recommended the Scottish reserved powers model for Wales, and recently this has been endorsed by both Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg – though it will take further legislation in a favourable climate at Westminster following the 2016 general election to achieve it.

But this was not the end of it for Scotland. As Macwhirter relates, Alex Salmond had a number of private meetings with Donald Dewar in 1997 at which he was asked his terms for joining the September 1997 cross-party referendum campaign. In the course of these meetings, the two men constructed a form of words which Salmond believes led directly to the forthcoming 2014 referendum. These were uttered by Dewar in the House of Commons on 21 May 1997, as follows:

“I should be the last to challenge the sovereignty of the people, or deny them the right to opt for any solution to the constitutional question they wished. For example, if they want to go for independence I see no reason why they should not do so. In fact, if they want to, they should. I would be the first to accept that.”

As Macwhirter notes, this is why to this day Salmond insists that the 1998 Scotland Act was the “best piece of constitutional legislation ever”.

Salmond has also been astute and skilful in adapting the SNP’s policies to social democratic values that has captured the mood of Scottish voters. As Macwhirter comments, “Scots find themselves living in a country that thinks more like Denmark while England is beginning to look more like America.” In the same breath he reminds us what John Curtice, the Scottish psephologist of choice in reading the referendum runes, told us back in 2005.

“The advancement of social democratic values may be part of what it means to Scots voters to be Scottish,” Curtice said, commenting on one of the largest surveys social and political differences then undertaken. “And with Labour having moved to the ideological centre, voters might come to the view that the SNP is the best way of expressing both their Scottishness and their social democratic policy choices at the same time.”

As Macwhirter notes, Labour ignored that warning to its cost, while the Conservatives never heard it. In his Herald column reporting on the SNP’s Spring conference in April, almost a year after Road to referendum was published, Macwhirter was still rubbing his eyes at the turnaround:

“Labour allowed the SNP to become the party of the NHS, nuclear disarmament and free education, while it has become the party of the benefits cap, immigration controls and weapons of mass destruction. I sometimes have to mentally pinch myself to remember that this is actually the case. But it is. Last month, Labour MPs voted overwhelmingly for the Coalition’s arbitrary welfare cap – surely a defining moment in British politics.”

In his book The Battle for Britain David Torrance covers much the same ground, though from a right of centre and more independence-sceptic perspective. Another difference is that in his account the SNP’s deputy leader Nicola Sturgeon, is more to the fore than Alex Salmond. In part this reflects a deliberate SNP strategy, to try and give a woman more of the limelight in a effort to attract women voters who, as all the polls testify, are much more wary of independence than men. If this September’s vote were happening a century ago, before the suffragettes triumphed, then Scotland would coast to independence.

As it is, a great deal rests on Nicola Sturgeon putting forward a pragmatic, common sense case for independence calculated to appeal to women. She is well equipped to do so. Her great quality is that she effortlessly takes the argument beyond the nationalist discourse of ‘identity’ and ‘self determination’ to foreground more immediate bread and butter choices concerning the economy, health, and social services. Her pitch is simply to say that an independent Scotland would be fairer, more prosperous, and more democratic. It would be the fourteenth richest country in the OECD, she says, compared with the UK’s eighteenth ranking.

The question the Scottish Labour Party must be asking itself is why someone of Nicola Sturgeon’s background and instincts is not a leading figure in their party. This is the answer Nicola Sturgeon herself gave in a lecture at Stirling University in 2012, quoted at length by David Torrance:

“Down the years, many people have asked me why I ended up in the SNP and not the Labour Party. Why did a young girl, growing up in a working-class family in the west of Scotland – part of the country where in those days, they would joke that the Labour vote was weighed rather than counted; someone who was, just like Labour was in those days, anti-Trident and pro social justice and went on to work as a social justice lawyer in Drumchapel – why does that person end up in the SNP instead of Labour? The reason is simple. I joined the SNP because it was obvious to me then – as it still is today – that you cannot guarantee social justice unless you are in control of the delivery.”

In the same speech, she continued:

“What do we get from leaving our powers in the control of others? A high-risk economy and an eroding social fabric. And let us be clear – to vote no in 2014 consigns us to that path. A deeply indebted state spending money on Trident weapons of mass destruction while cutting welfare. A state adrift from Europe and increasingly isolated on the world stage. And to those who say that the answer is to change the occupant of No 10 and the colour of the UK government, I say we have been there and done that and the challenges we face remain undiminished.”

Iain Macwhirter and David Torrance come to essentially the same, paradoxical, conclusion in their account of the referendum debate. Both say the differences between the Yes and No sides are a lot less than you might think. In a dedication page at the opening of The Battle for Britain Torrance directs his message to his readers: “To all sincere (and polite) advocates of either ‘independence’ or the ‘Union’ – you’ll probably find the solution is somewhere in between.” For his part, Macwhirter suggests that the logical end of the process set in train by Donald Dewar’s 1998 Act is a contradictory constitutional settlement: “Independence in the UK. Living apart, together.”

Both authors give a good deal of attention to the experience of Quebec within Canada, and especially the referendum in 1995 which ended inconclusively with the narrowest of results – 49.42 per cent voting Yes and 50.58 per cent voting No. Torrance quotes former Canadian Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff reflecting that after 1995:

“Canadians were able to joke that what Quebeckers really wanted was an independent Quebec inside a united Canada. I suspect a majority of Scots want something similar – independence plus the pound, a ‘social union’ in place of a political union; sovereignty in other words, without its economic or psychological costs.”

Of course, Ignatieff, writing in the Financial Times in January 2012, was describing something close to Devo-max. The trouble is that, as both Macwhirter and Torrance concede, thanks to David Cameron this isn’t on the ballot paper. I just said that the 1995 Quebec vote was inconclusive. But in a way it was, just as the Welsh devolution referendum in 1997, won by a similar margin, was. Within a matter of weeks it was hard to find anyone in Wales willing to admit they had voted No.

However, in Quebec the Parti Quebecois has lost ground since 1995. They have just lost another Quebec election, in the Spring of this year, and a rerun of their referendum vote is receding further into the difference. A Scottish No vote in September, even by a similar margin, could yield a similarly frustrating outcome.

On a final note: I keep wondering which way Tom Johnston (1881-1965) would cast his ballot if he were still around this September. Although no friend of Scottish nationalism, he was a long-standing supporter of Home Rule. Above all, he was attached to the kind of social democratic values now being articulated so eloquently by Nicola Sturgeon. I think his heart might have pulled his head in that direction. As voters finally head to the polls, signalling the end of the long two-year campaign in Scotland it looks as though a narrow majority might find themselves doing the same.

John Osmond was founding Director of the Institute of Welsh Affairs and is now a freelance journalist and writer. Books reviewed here: Iain Macwhirter, Road to Referendum, Cargo, 2013, £13.99; and David Torrance, The Battle for Britain: Scotland and the Independence Referendum, Biteback, 2013, £14.99.

2 thoughts on “Living apart, together

  1. It’s become a shibboleth of contemporary Scottish affairs that north of the border, there’s a more ‘social democratic’ political culture. It’s certainly true that Scots tend to vote for centre-left parties to a greater extent than people in (southern) England. However, does that really indicate a difference in values, or is something more complicated going on?

    The Scottish Social Attitudes Survey provides some important evidence. The latest results reveal that public opinion in Scotland is far from ‘progressive’ on many issues: counter-intuitively, for example, a majority of Scots say that unemployment benefits are too high, and their views don’t differ markedly from people elsewhere in the UK. Similarly, the Scottish public appetite for more government tax-and-spend, even amongst pro-independence voters, is far from Nordic.

    So if Scottish values aren’t much different to English values, why do two centre-left parties dominate Scottish politics? Tim Montgomerie made the interesting observation that Holyrood is essentially a spending institution rather than a revenue-raising one, so the traditional right-wing tax-cutting agenda is of less relevance there (maybe that would change with independence). Another reason could be that the SNP is really not quite so left-wing as it sometimes appears. Sure, it opposes the ‘bedroom tax’ and wants higher spending on childcare, but it equally it wants to reduce corporation tax, opposes a 50p income tax rate and has frozen council tax; these are classic centre-right positions.

  2. I told my wife (Polly, nee Gunn) about the painting by her grandfather in the state room. She was most amused about the many ironies here. This is a human side to a long, hard and perhaps harsh campaign. H J Gunn’s ancestors were cleared from Helmsdale in circa 1830 and his father became Master Tailor in Glasgow. He went to Glasgow University to learn to paint ‘with a bag of oats’ as my father in law put it. After that, things got better. I wonder what his views are?

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