In December 1969, the Amoco Corporation struck oil 130 miles east of the Aberdeenshire shoreline—and the axis of Scottish politics suddenly shifted.
In the years that followed, the claim that Scotland’s economy was too weak to support an independent state rapidly crumbled.
This weekend, the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) meets in Glasgow for its annual conference.
After more than a decade in power at Holyrood – Scotland’s devolved parliament in Edinburgh – the party continues to defy all the established rules of mainstream politics.
On a cold February morning two years ago, Gordon Brown held a press conference on the top floor of the Doubletree Hotel in Edinburgh. Framed by a bright, clear view of the capital’s skyline, with the castle fixed immutably in the distance, the former prime minister launched – once more – into the constitutional debate. Independence, he said, would mean breaking all ties to Britain. Scotland should lead the United Kingdom, not leave it. Only the Labour Party understands this country’s unique commitment to social justice.
And yet, as Brown paced the stage, wagging his finger at reporters and thunderously regurgitating another stock defence of the devolutionary project, somewhere, on some primitive, subliminal level, he must have known that Scotland was no longer listening, and that in the very near future, regardless of what he said today or how vigorously he said it, Labour would slip screaming into a broad, black Caledonian abyss.
Not that long ago, Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon was the most exciting social democrat in European politics.
She took charge of the SNP – and with it an absolute majority at Holyrood, Scotland’s devolved national legislature – in the aftermath of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. The SNP lost that referendum, but left-leaning Scots, many of them former Labour voters, flocked to her side.
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.
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.
According to leading pollsters, Tricia O’Connor is a typical Yes voter.
The 33-year-old single mother from Larkfield, Greenock, earns just over £17,000 a year and lives in what she describes as a “working class area.”