Thursday, 12 January 2012

Salmond fishing

In an excellent assessment of Alex Salmond's present dominance of the Scottish political scene (and how many people in England can even name another Scotland-based politician?) Jonathan Friedland wonders if full independence would really be in the SNP leader's interests:

Such an outcome ["devo-max"] might even suit Salmond better than independence, for his appeal rests, in part, on his status as the underdog, the plucky (Scottish) man against the mighty (London) machine. All-powerful first minister he may be but, as long as he is campaigning for independence, rather than achieving it, this appeal remains intact. For Salmond, truly the journey is as important as the destination.

There's some truth here, but not, I suspect, much. However much he enjoys his complete dominance over the Scottish political scene, what Salmond would love above all, I suspect, is to go down in history as the man who led Scotland to independence. He imagines standing in the company of Wallace and Bruce, or even of Washington, Gandhi and Bolivar, as the Father of the Nation, one whose deeds will echo in eternity.

Friedland writes that never since Tony Blair was in his pomp has Britain beheld a more naturally gifted politician. Or one, I would add, with a bigger ego. But Blair was ultimately a trivial figure, who went off to make his millions and was rarely to be seen again. He lacked much sense of history. He had a vision of the world, and his place in it, but it was a vision made up of slogans and generalities. Salmond's big idea is easy to understand and (unlike Blair's remade world) seemingly obtainable.

An independent Scotland would be terrible news for English politicians who aspire still to play the global game of great-power politics, and it could keep Labour out of office in London for a generation or more, but it wouldn't be obviously disastrous for either the Scots or the English. If you conceive of Scotland and England as separate countries, as most people in the UK do, it is the continuance of the union that appears anomalous. If Austria and Hungary can go their separate ways, or the Swedes and the Norwegians, or the Czechs and the Slovaks, or the Russians and the Ukrainians, then why not England and Scotland? It might largely be an historical accident that England, Scotland and indeed Wales entered the modern age with a consciousness of separate identities, but they did, and from that happenstance Scottish independence logically follows.

Staving it off will largely be a case of exaggerating the dangers. That said, inertia is a powerful force in politics. The two parts of Canada don't even speak the same language, nor do the two parts of Belgium, yet somehow both these unnatural entities stagger on, and have done for decades, despite strong independence movements. The union between Scotland and England makes far better geographical, racial and linguistic sense than either of those. Unless David Cameron manages to antagonise the Scots unnecessarily there's little prospect of an independence referendum going through. He's made a good start, though, with his refusal to countenance a two-part referendum. If "devo-max" is seen to be popular and workable, and the Scottish people are not allowed to vote on in, a retaliatory, "screw-you" vote for independence can't be ruled out. I'd be tempted, were I a Scot.

Especially if it meant Alex Salmond taking his place in history, and finally leaving the political stage.