Before last year’s independence referendum, there was a broad consensus among unionists. A defeat for the Yes campaign would rob nationalism of its momentum. With the SNP humbled, Scottish politics could return to a more stable dynamic: Labour dominant at Westminster and—at the very least—competitive at Holyrood.
Jim Murphy’s election as Scottish Labour leader in December was meant to be the first sign of normalcy reasserting itself. In contrast to Johann Lamont—his underwhelming (and overwhelmed) predecessor—the East Renfrewshire MP was a “substantial” politician. As a member of the shadow cabinet and former minister in both the Blair and Brown governments, he had the “experience” to match Nicola Sturgeon.
In July 2011, two months after the SNP secured majority control of the Holyrood parliament, I interviewed Neal Ascherson, the Edinburgh-born political writer, in London. For Ascherson’s convenience, we met at the Euston Hilton, a short walk from where he works – somewhat incongruously – as an Honorary Fellow at UCL’s Institute of Archaeology.
Our conversation centred on the brewing row between the Scottish and UK governments over independence. ‘The Salmond strategy is to bear down on the whole devolution structure in such a way that it can be shown not to work and a situation arises in which Westminster continuously blocks Scottish demands,’ Ascherson told me. ‘But now things have moved so fast that his plan may be to just spin things out until devolution breaks down of its own inadequacy.’
Barcelona is a city draped in flags. Only a handful of windows surrounding my rented apartment in El Born – a fashionably ramshackle district close to the harbour – are flag-free. From the rest hang esteladas, the distinctive blue-and-white-starred symbol of Catalan national sovereignty.
Catalonia has become increasingly polarised in recent years as requests for enhanced autonomy – consistently rejected by Madrid – have hardened into demands for outright independence from Spain. Polls suggest as many as 45 per cent of Catalans support secession, while 25 per cent favour federalism and a further 20 per cent support the constitutional status quo.
During Scotland’s independence referendum, George Robertson, the former Labour defence secretary and Hamilton South MP, told a joke about his Scottish National Party opponents. “The Italian Mafia might make you an offer you can’t refuse,” Robertson sneered. “But the nationalists will make you an offer you can’t understand.”
As the dust from the 18 September poll begins to settle, Scottish Yes campaigners are trying to work out what went wrong. The dominant theory is that the SNP mangled its pitch. On one hand, Alex Salmond said independence would transform the Scottish economy. On the other, he conceded that monetary union would restrict the country’s fiscal autonomy. Salmond regularly hinted at post-independence increases in public expenditure but ruled out tax rises to fund them. He said Scotland could borrow more to end austerity but dismissed claims that this would increase the deficit.
“I’ve seen this happen so many times before”, one veteran left-wing activist told me in the early hours of Friday morning, as we stood in the lobby of the Emirates Arena in the east end of Glasgow. “The Labour vote descends like a mist from nowhere and disperses just as quickly.”
In the end, it was only one section of the Labour vote – the public sector “salatariat”, as the journalist Paul Mason, another of my companions at the Glasgow count, described it – that turned out for the Union. The poorest parts of Scotland – those areas in which Westminster’s failure is most conspicuous – went with the nationalists.
Jackie Anderson stands in the center of the campaign office she helps run on Maryhill Road in north Glasgow. Her white T-shirt is emblazoned with a single word in bright blue print: “Yes.”
On Thursday, Scotland holds a referendum on independence from the United Kingdom. Pollsters say the race is too close to call. But Anderson has no doubt about the way the residents of Maryhill will vote.
For as long as I’ve been aware of books, I’ve been aware of Tom Nairn’s The Break-Up of Britain. When I was growing up, there were at least two copies – separate editions: the original from 1977 and a later volume from 1981 with a postscript on Thatcherism – lodged on my dad’s bookshelves. It was the later volume, with its distinctive black and yellow jacket design, that first caught my attention.
As I got older and began to delve into them, I was quietly thrilled to find my dad’s name – Stephen Maxwell – among those cited by Nairn, alongside Gordon Brown and Hamish Henderson, in the acknowledgements. But it wasn’t until my late teens that I really began to engage with – or properly comprehend – their contents.