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The Scottish question


Andrew Picken, political editor of The Sunday Post

For 11 days in September the longest-lasting political union in the world hung by a thread as voters in Scotland came within a hair’s breadth of breaking up the United Kingdom. Scotland’s independence referendum campaign had simmered away for two years, largely generating more heat than light against a backdrop of healthy opinion poll leads for the pro-Union side.

But then, less than a fortnight before referendum day, the pollsters caught up with a shifting public mood; ‘Yes’ was in front for the first time and the independence battle burst into life.

The looming constitutional crisis electrified the ‘Yes’ campaign, put within touching distance of its dream 80 years after the Scottish National Party was founded. At Westminster there were promises and panic as the days went by and the vote remained too close to call.

In the end, it seemed ‘Yes’ peaked too early but the referendum’s ultimate rejection of separation has fuelled rather than dampening introspection over the future of the UK.

In Scotland, the record 85 percent turnout has left the country politically energised and hungry for social change, with or without independence.

I have covered Scottish politics for the last six years, watching the idea of an independence referendum move from ridicule to reality: what follow are the key moments of more than 1,000 days of the most expensive and exhausting political campaign ever undertaken in the UK, told – with the benefit of hindsight – by those involved.


 

Mon 15th Oct 2012 | An in/out referendum is announced

David Cameron and Alex Salmond end months of wrangling by shaking hands on an independence referendum to be held in the autumn of 2014. There had been talk of two questions on the ballot – one offering ‘devo-max’ (more devolution but not full independence) as an option – but ultimately it was to be one in/out question. They also agreed that, for the first time in a national ballot, 16- and 17-year-olds would be allowed to vote


Michael Moore Liberal Democrat MP and former secretary of state for Scotland

“It is fair to say I’d never before needed to go to what everyone talks about as the ‘Quad’ [a weekly meeting between the prime minister, deputy prime minister, chancellor and treasury chief secretary] but suddenly Scotland had risen up the priority list.

The legal power [to hold a referendum] was our decisive card but Salmond was still insisting they didn’t need this power and they could do it anyway.

The big change came when Nicola Sturgeon was appointed constitution minister. The SNP recognised they needed to do a deal. [Their public consultation which showed 62 percent of the Scottish public were against the inclusion of a ‘devo-max’ option] had given them no cover for two questions on the ballot paper.

Back in with the Quad, the feeling was ‘Right, let’s get this deal done’, but the absolute red line – ‘don’t even come back to see us if you don’t get it’ – was that it had to be a single question.

The deal was done well in advance as I did not want to get into a situation where Salmond and Cameron had to finish it.

To be frank the prime minister was clear with me that he didn’t want to have to do the last-minute haggles because that would have been bound to be on Alex’s terms rather than ours.”


Kevin Pringle,  SNP strategic communications director and Alex Salmond’s former chief advisor

“It was a process where there was always a feeling we were really not having to concede much at all, despite all the to-ing and fro-ing of the negotiations.

We never shook that sense [of not ceding too much], despite the presentational politics. We wanted the Scottish parliament to deliver the referendum in the second half of our term in office; we wanted 16- and 17-year-olds to vote; and, most importantly [at this point], we wanted a yes/no question on independence – all of which we got.

The mandate to hold the referendum and for it to be made in Scotland [drafted and passed by the Scottish parliament] was crystal clear so it was a strong starting point and they [in Westminster] knew it too.”


Kay Ullrich, Former social worker and SNP member for 50 years

“It was a process where there was always a feeling we were really not having to concede much at all, despite all the to-ing and fro-ing of the negotiations.

We never shook that sense [of not ceding too much], despite the presentational politics. We wanted the Scottish parliament to deliver the referendum in the second half of our term in office; we wanted 16- and 17-year-olds to vote; and, most importantly [at this point], we wanted a yes/no question on independence – all of which we got.

The mandate to hold the referendum and for it to be made in Scotland [drafted and passed by the Scottish parliament] was crystal clear so it was a strong starting point and they [in Westminster] knew it too.”


Thu 13th Oct 2014 | A currency union is ruled out

Along with the other pro-Union party representatives, George Osborne formally rules out any prospect of currency union between what would remain of the UK and an independent Scotland

 

Sun 7th Sep 2014 | ‘Yes’ takes the lead

A Sunday Times YouGov poll shows ‘Yes’ ahead of ‘No’ for the first time with 11 days of campaigning to go


Blair Jenkins Chief, executive of the pro-independence campaign, ‘Yes Scotland’

“This was a good sign. They clearly felt they needed to deploy this weapon – which we always suspected they would – at this stage. They clearly thought we could win.

The Treasury had always been downbeat on the idea [of a currency union] but was careful with the language not to rule it out so the change was very much a campaign tactic on the part of the ‘No’ parties.

But they had played their ace card early and it clearly got people’s backs up as the polling then began to show.”


Blair McDougall, Campaign director of the pro-Union ‘No’ campaign, ‘Better Together’

“The nationalists never landed on an honest position on currency but [our position] was. The three parties were genuine when they said, ‘Look, we’re not going to do this,’ so it was only right for the chancellor to set this out.

Every bit of polling and focus-group work always, always, always came back to what currency we would be using. Alistair [Darling, leader of the ‘No’ campaign] hit the nail on the head during the TV debate with Salmond when he said, ‘Any eight-   year-old can tell you the flag of a country, the capital of a country and its currency.’

Yes, we knew there would be a short-term hit in the polls but the message was crucial.”


Peter Kellner, President of YouGov

“YouGov polls have provoked a range of reactions down the years, but none caused as much panic as this one. The pound fell sharply, and David Cameron and Ed Miliband agreed they should head north [to Scotland] rather than slug it out at Prime Minister’s Questions.

Ours was no rogue poll. The big ‘No’ lead did evaporate. With two weeks to go, the race was too close to call. In the final days, though, ‘Yes’ support slipped back, as fears of the economic consequences of independence were revived.”


Jason Allardyce, Scottish editor of The Sunday Times

“Earlier in that week there had been a YouGov poll which had shown a substantial narrowing of the gap so we knew it could be interesting.

YouGov gave us an early indication it was likely to be a dead heat or narrow lead for ‘Yes’. I got the results on the Friday and there was a campaign briefing for the Sunday papers in the ‘Yes Scotland’ office with [then deputy first minister] Nicola Sturgeon that afternoon.

Afterwards she cornered me, trying to get an idea of what the poll was saying. She asked me, ‘Will it make me happy?’ And I just said something like, ‘It depends if you like polls,’ and made my excuses.

She actually sent me a message after the poll was published, saying, ‘Remind me never to play poker with you.’

Rupert Murdoch tweeted some pretty big hints of the poll result on the Saturday afternoon and it all got a bit frenzied. It was a great coup for the paper.”


Kevin Pringle

“We quizzed Jason [Allardyce] and the only thing he let slip was the word ‘interesting’ so we knew it was not going to be bad news.

But then it fitted a pattern of polls, which were neck and neck at the time. What it did for our side, and particularly the activists and undecided voters leaning towards ‘Yes’, was that it gave a sense of possibility and continued our momentum.

You can’t say the poll came too soon, it just reflected the mood and we had to go ahead at some point if we were going to win.”


Blair McDougall

“There was no sense of panic, at least not within the half-dozen or so senior people in ‘Better Together’.

Our pollster Andrew Cooper of Populus [the prime minister’s former director of strategy in Downing Street] had predicted a couple of months previously that what was happening in the polls right at this point would happen.

The undecided vote was roughly one-third ‘heart’ voters, and two-thirds ‘head’ voters. He said the hearts would decide early and the heads would make their minds up pretty much on polling day – this is what happened.

The ‘Yes’ reaction to the poll was a complete strategic error – they had a ten-day street party. I was watching 10,000 people in [Glasgow’s] George Square dancing and celebrating a week out from the vote. If I was the ‘Yes’ campaign manager I would have been tearing my hair out. If they were ‘No’ voters I would have been down there saying, ‘get out and knock on doors!’”

 

Thu 18th Sep 2011 | Polling day

Scotland goes to the polls and rejects independence by 55 to 45 percent, prompting first minister and leader of the ‘Yes’ campaign Alex Salmond to resign


Kevin Pringle

“Some of the first few sample returns came back in places like Clackmannanshire [considered a bellwether region] and it did not look like we had done well enough.

In Glasgow and Dundee we knew ‘Yes’ would do well but that was never going to be enough. The YouGov poll came out at 10pm, which actually called the result spot on, and that was another indicator that it was not going to be our night.

So things were quiet, the mood was pensive and the feeling from the early returns never went away.

There was a shift in spirits when we saw the final figures. 1.6 million people voting ‘Yes’ felt like a big achievement when you consider where we started from.”


Blair McDougall

“At around 9pm I started phoning around ten MPs whose judgement I trust and they all said, ‘It is going to be fine.’

On the first floor of the Marriott Hotel in Glasgow we had banks of laptops feeding us updates of the canvas returns from all over Scotland and it was clear that it was going well relatively early on.

At about 1am I thought I’d go and get 45 minutes of sleep. I’d just dropped off when there was a knock at my door from a staff member who said people wanted to know where I was. So I got up and adrenaline got me through.

The victory moment itself was not a cinematic piece of glory. We were delighted but there was still work to be done”

 

“1.6 million voting ‘Yes’ is amazing. But at the end of the day we didn’t win” Alex Salmond


Nicola Sturgeon, then deputy, now first minister of Scotland

“I thought right up until the polls closed that we had won, partly I suppose because I was campaigning in Glasgow where we did win so I was getting that feeling from it.

I was very disappointed, but with Alex’s resignation announcement things moved on quickly. I had a go at talking him out of it, but it was pretty obvious he’d made up his mind. Watching his press conference was incredibly sad. I don’t mind admitting I shed a tear. It was an incredibly emotional day. I’ve worked with the guy for 20 years, been his deputy for ten years. We’d put our hearts and souls into this campaign.”


Alex Salmond, Former first minister of Scotland

“I only made my mind up [to resign] on the Friday morning.

I know this is kind of old-fashioned but when you lose an election or a referendum and you’re the leader then there’s a responsibility to take responsibility for losing.

We lost the referendum, but we did some amazing things: 1.6 million voting ‘Yes’ is amazing. But at the end of the day we didn’t win.”


Kevin Williamson, Writer and ‘Yes’ campaigner

“All over Scotland people were hurting. When my partner took our five-year-old son to his primary school half the kids weren’t there. His mum had to take him home, bewildered and in tears. The staff helped but were gutted.

We tried. So many wonderful people embraced the idea of transformational change and tried their best to make our country a better place to live in; for everyone, not just the few. But, as happens in a democracy, we didn’t win.

‘Yes’ did its best. Armed with little more than social media, blogs and DIY creativity, we tried to take on the might of the British state and the vast power and wealth of the British establishment.

And for a few weeks we had them terrified. It has changed our country for ever.”

 

Sun 13th Oct 2014

A pro-independence rally called Hope Over Fear takes place in Glasgow as the majority of the ‘Yes’ campaign groups vow to continue campaigning. The SNP reveals its membership has tripled during the campaign to make it the third biggest political party in the UK


Tommy Sheridan, Former Socialist MSP and rally organiser 

“We estimated the crowd at around 13,000 and that was with not a single poster or leaflet printed. It was all done through word of mouth and social media. It shows you the depth of feeling out there.

Now you can’t march every week and the campaign will go through peaks and troughs, but ‘Yes’ voters want to punish the British establishment and the Labour Party for propping up the Tories on their ‘Bitter Together’ coalition.

I was involved in the poll tax campaign but this dwarfs that. We awakened and politicised a nation. Nearly 80,000 people have joined a political party since the referendum – when did you ever hear of that?”


Jonathon Shafi, Co-founder of the Radical Independence Campaign

“We’ve gone from meetings with 30 people to selling out concert halls with 3,000 people. There is something happening in Scotland and the referendum was only the beginning.

The issues are still there – poverty, low wages, etc – and people want change. The challenge we now have is to get there without independence – for now at least. We are not lapdogs of the SNP and we never will be.”

“We awakened and politicised a nation. Nearly 80,000 people have joined a political party since the referendum – when did you ever hear of that?” Tommy Sheridan


Blair McDougall

There is no such thing as ‘the 45 percent’: there is a 25 percent or so who clearly want another referendum tomorrow but the rest of Scotland just wants to get on
with their lives.

What we heard on 18th September was the settled will of the Scottish people. I just don’t buy the idea that this is something that should come back again and again.

Alex Salmond has a responsibility to march these people back down the hill in a responsible way.


Alex Salmond

“I think we’ve got to realise, all of us in politics, that the movement in Scotland is now as important, if not more, than political parties.

The tens of thousands of people finding political activism for the first time are the new guardians of Scotland and all of us in conventional politics have to appreciate that.

The population under 55 voted ‘yes’. However, the population over 55 voted ‘no’. I’m afraid I am of the generation that voted ‘no’ and I think the generation that takes Scotland forward is surely the younger generation. I think people of my age, all of us, should just look in the mirror and start to question ourselves as to whether we mustn’t hold the next generation back in Scotland.”

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