By David Torrance
At the beginning of 2013 a leading SNP strategist said he reckoned 2012 would come to be seen as a ‘year of process’ (he meant the negotiations which led to the Edinburgh Agreement), 2013 would be the ‘year of substance’, and 2014 would, finally, be the ‘year of campaigning’.
It was a nice way of divvying up the ‘long’ campaign, but was it an accurate summary? Well, yes and no. While process issues dominated 2012, they were discussed alongside matters of real substance, and while 2013 saw more ‘substance’ (if UK and Scottish Government publications count as that), process still reared its complicated head from time to time.
There was a small matter of the date, which the First Minister finally revealed as 18 September 2014 in March, producing lots of hackneyed headlines about dates with destiny. A great believer in maintaining momentum by drip-feeding important information, it deliberately generated the impression that the Scottish Government rather than Westminster was in charge of the referendum process.
Newspaper sub-editors were also kept busy the following month when Baroness Thatcher died aged 87. Alex Salmond, who attended the semi-state funeral in London, was deliberately low key, determined not to repeat past slips (probably Freudian) about Scots not ‘minding’ the economic side of Thatcherism so much as the social. Interestingly, the Scottish coverage was measured in tone, a belated acknowledgement that the undeniably traumatic Thatcher era had for too long been caricatured.
A reference to the ‘Poll Tax’, however, still found its way into the Scottish Government’s White Paper a few months later, a reminder that the political motifs of the 1980s still feature in contemporary Scottish discourse. Many Scots like to flatter themselves that they somehow didn’t do Thatcherism, and while this is true to an extent, it’s been exaggerated to an absurd degree in the decades since Mrs Thatcher left Downing Street. Indeed, so strong is her legacy that even independence is now envisaged in – dare I say it – Thatcherite economic terms: low tax, business friendly and entrepreneurial. The Iron Lady would have been proud.
Many Scots also like to believe they don’t do Euroscepticism or opposition to immigration, thus why the UKIP leader Nigel Farage got such a rough ride during a campaigning visit to Edinburgh (for, confusingly, the Aberdeen Donside by-election). It was all a bit unedifying and no one emerged smelling of roses: the protestors were well-intentioned but puerile, Farage over-reacted (calling protestors ‘racist scum’) and Alex Salmond refused to condemn what in any other context would have been seen as intimidatory behaviour.
Still, polls suggested around a third of Scots would vote to withdraw from the European Union, which was roughly the proportion who also wanted to leave the United Kingdom, or at least bits of it – the First Minister spent last summer talking about the ‘six unions’ of which Scotland was currently a member (monarchical, currency, social, European, political and defence), and how he wanted to retain all but the political union post-independence. This, as the commentator Alf Young mused, made Mr Salmond ‘five-sixths a unionist’, as is Mr Farage, it’s just he wants to withdraw from the European Union and keep everything else.
Of course polls are polls, although there was little in any of last year’s to give much comfort to Yes Scotland, which continued to trail Better Together despite a general feeling that the pro-Union campaign had overdone it a little with what the SNP generally dismissed as ‘scaremongering’. And if Nationalists were guilty of applying that term to legitimate questions about independence as well as illegitimate (mobile phone roaming charges being the most egregious example), it didn’t seem to impact upon public opinion.
According to the US polling guru Nate Silver, who appeared at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August, the Yes campaign had ‘virtually no chance’ of winning independence unless some huge catastrophe originating in England proved to be a game-changer. Sure, Panelbase polls appeared to show a modest drift towards Yes and away from No, but in context during 2013 there was – as Professor John Curtice articulated ad nauseam – no trend in either direction. Yes Scotland needed to enter the ‘short’ campaign in 2014 with a ten-point lead if it was to stand any chance of winning, but as 2013 drew to a close that remained a pipe dream.
July provided a sporting distraction with Andy Murray’s long-awaited win at Wimbledon. Controversially, Alex Salmond celebrated in the VIP stand by producing a Saltire from his wife Moira’s handbag and waving it jauntily behind the Prime Minister. Viewed by London-based hacks as a major miscalculation, in fact the First Minister had successfully put a ‘kilt’ on what was of course a major news story. It reminded television viewers that Murray was a Scot as well as a ‘Brit’ and got Salmond a lot of air time the following day. Shameless, undoubtedly, it was also quite clever, and very typically Salmond.
Otherwise during 2013 Nicola Sturgeon continued to do most of heavy lifting in terms of speeches, debate and general presentation, and she did it very well. But it was the much-maligned Labour leader Ed Miliband who set the political weather with his annual conference speech in September, particularly his pledge to cap energy prices should his party win the 2015 general election. Not only did this wrong-foot the Coalition, it also perturbed the Scottish Government, which initially appeared to side with energy companies before unveiling its own bill-cutting policy at its conference the following month.
Perhaps that cut through to the proverbial man in the street, but otherwise 2013 was another year in which normal Scots (if such a thing exists) were generally too busy with their everyday lives to pay much attention to the Holyrood or Westminster bubbles inhabited by political strategists and journalists. That said, the White Paper (finally published in November) proved a surprise hit in its hard and electronic formats (it was free), although the Great Tapestry of Scotland, a 500ft-long work of art on display at the Scottish Parliament, resulted in queues snaking round the Holyrood block.
It’s worth bearing that in mind as the ‘year of campaigning’ begins. Twenty-fourteen will, I suspect, also be full of the usual debates about process and substance, for it was ever thus. Still, by this time next year we shall have a result, an answer to the question (perhaps now the wrong one) first posed almost eighty years ago when the Scottish National Party was formed in 1934. For that reason alone it’ll be quite a year.
David Torrance is a writer, journalist and broadcaster.
He is also author of ‘Salmond – Against The Odds’ a biography of Scotland’s First Minister