Independence lite would not be one thing or the other. But it is starting to have appeal for unionists and nationalists alike
Could Team GB’s finest hour also turn out to be its last? Scotland’s ruling nationalist party is certainly hoping, and planning, for that possibility. They’ve been thumbing through the Olympic rulebook, confident that, if Scots vote yes in the independence referendum scheduled for the autumn of 2014, they can establish Team Scotland in time for the 2016 Games in Rio. Scotland already meets the key criterion, with internationally recognised federations in at least five Olympic sports. If that yes vote comes, Chris Hoy could, legs permitting, be leading out a team draped in the flag of St Andrew four summers from now.
But it’s a big if. True, first minister Alex Salmond remains the paramount figure in the country, his SNP ruling alone and still polling ahead of the Labour party they battered so thoroughly last year. That supremacy can make independence seem inevitable, leaking even into the opening gag at a night of Scottish comedy at the Edinburgh fringe. “It’s the last time you’ll be able to come here without a passport,” was how standup Scott Agnew welcomed English members of his audience on Thursday. “Don’t worry,” he added, “we’re happy to take your tourist money – just like you took our oil.”
Yet polls show that while Scots continue to back the party of independence, a stubborn majority opposes independence itself, with support apparently stuck well below a 40% ceiling. And that is to reckon without the Olympics, which – whatever its eventual impact on the poll numbers – has boosted the morale of campaigners to keep Scotland in the UK. “We’ve seen a detoxifying of the union flag,” says Johann Lamont, elected in December as Scottish Labour leader. It wasn’t just that “you saw all these young, beautiful people wanting to have this flag around them”, she told me. Lamont also believes the Olympics reintroduced Scots to a London different from the remote, imperial capital of nationalist rhetoric. Instead of a Whitehall bent on thwarting the Scottish will, Scots saw a mixed, diverse London alongside a bunch of English athletes – she mentions Bradley Wiggins and Nicola Adams – of great appeal: “People here don’t want that to be a foreign country.”
Until now, it was widely assumed that the emotional cards were all stacked on the independence side of the argument: patriotism and the Braveheart call on the Scottish people to seize their destiny. But this summer has emboldened the No camp to believe their case need no longer be cast solely in the bloodless terms of fiscal and governmental practicality. They have seen that the idea of Britain – presented the right way – can tug at Scottish hearts, too. In that spirit, I have a modest suggestion for those opposing independence. Rather than be branded as the No campaign – often a disadvantage in referendum battles – they should be brazen and call themselves “Team GB”. It would encapsulate the message nicely.
There’s no denying that the pro-union forces lack a leader with Salmond’s charisma, but they are not short of heavyweights. Former chancellor Alistair Darling is at the helm, while this week Gordon Brown, always more respected in Scotland than elsewhere, made a rare intervention, lauding the benefits of nations pooling their resources together. Lamont herself is winning admirers, testing Salmond in Holyrood and scoring in part, says columnist Kenny Farquharson, by being “what every Scot can instantly recognise and respect: a working class matriarch”. Whatever the bald numbers say, the contest set to play out over the next two years is intriguingly evenly matched, with big players and big arguments on both sides. That, in turn, has unleashed a curious dynamic – one that might point to the ultimate resolution of this near-perennial question.
Mindful that his cause remains a minority view in Scotland, Salmond has been keen to allay the fears of potential supporters, happily shearing off those aspects of independence that have proved offputting. So he reassures Scots that, even if they vote yes, they will still get to keep the Queen as their head of state, the pound sterling as their currency, even Britishness as a core part of their identity (the way Danes and Norwegians are free to regard themselves as Scandinavian, one SNP official explains).
The aim is to comfort Scots that a yes vote in 2014 need not entail a rupture from all that is cosily familiar. That’s why nationalists never use the word “separation”, still less “separatism”. In a recent internal SNP discussion, it was suggested that “independence” itself was best avoided, replaced by “independent Scotland”. So Salmond promises fiscal autonomy, but with the Bank of England still serving as Scotland’s central bank (albeit with a permanent Scottish place on the monetary policy committee). Scotland will have its own Olympic team, but will share training facilities with Team GB. Call it independence-minus.
The funny thing is, all this sounds a lot like the alternative to independence, the “devolution max” option which could appear as a second question on the 2014 ballot paper. At present, Labour and others oppose devo max, insisting that the referendum should be a straight, up-or-down ballot on independence. But as first minister with a commanding majority in Holyrood, Salmond will be crucial in determining what goes on the ballot paper. And he may well conclude that if independence is destined for defeat, while devo max has a chance to pass, then the latter is the pragmatic next step for a movement which has achieved all its gains the same way: incrementally.
The irony is that a similar movement is detectable from the other direction. David Cameron has reportedly proposed further devolution of powers from Westminster in return for Salmond posing no second question. The first minister wouldn’t accept it – why take the risk of a defeat with no consolation prize? – but it reveals the direction of travel.
While the nationalists make concessions to what we might call cultural unionism, so unionists are ready to concede constitutional ground to nationalism. Both sides could end up in the same place, reaching for what the BBC’s Allan Little calls “the Goldilocks option”, not the full heat of independence, nor the chill of the status quo but somewhere in between that feels just right.
It would be a boggy terrain of compromise that will look like independence to some and like maximal devolution to others. Edinburgh could say it has full fiscal autonomy, the defining feature of nationhood; Westminster that it retains the ultimate say over currency, defence and foreign affairs, and so the union remains. Such an outcome will not be clear or neat – but, for that very reason, it would be extremely British.
Twitter: @j_ freedland