Commonspace columnist Ian Dunn suggests that if a bus had hit the former first minister 18 months before the referendum Scotland would be on the verge on independence
EDINBURGH, the summer of 2013, a bus on the Royal mile swerves to avoid a child that darted unto the road. It ploughs towards the crowded pavement, where First Minister Alex Salmond is strolling down towards the Scottish Parliament.
He reacts fast, pushing his companion away from the bus, but is unable to avoid it himself. Miraculously, he is the only casualty.
I should be clear this would be a terrible tragedy, of course, but as an intellectual exercise, it’s worth pursuing the consequences.
Salmond’s more aggressive approach has not been followed by his successor as first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, and there’s no reason to think she’d have treated the referendum differently.
Firstly, Scotland would mourn. Even Mr Salmond’s fiercest critics would pay glowing tribute. Nicola Sturgeon would take over as first minister. The referendum would continue on the agreed timetable, with much talk among nationalists of “doing it for Alex”.
The White Paper would come out, would be essentially the same. On the troubled issue of currency the plan would be no different.
Where things would start to diverge is tone. Salmond’s more aggressive approach has not been followed by his successor as first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, and there’s no reason to think she’d have treated the referendum differently.
A slightly less hostile campaign, on both sides, would have followed. With Sturgeon’s star in the ascendant, the No campaign would have been robbed of one of its greatest assets: the antipathy felt by many towards Alex Salmond.
Sturgeon, more broadly liked, would find a broader base of support, as she’s done post-referendum. Though currency and the economy would have remained problematic for the Yes campaign, Sturgeon’s less confrontational style would calm many waverers, as would her clear besting of Alistair Darling, not once but twice, in the debates.
With Sturgeon’s star in the ascendant, the No campaign would have been robbed of one of its greatest assets: the antipathy felt by many towards Alex Salmond.
Women for Independence would take on a far more prominent role in the Yes campaign, and with support for independence almost equal among men and women the first poll showing a majority for Yes would come out three months before the referendum.
The deluge of panicked horror stories from London on the impact of separation would repeat but spread out over several months they would lose their impact. By the end, the fractious Better Together campaign would have all but conceded defeat.
On the day it would still be close, but by 51-49 Scotland would have voted for independence.
A fantasy, but an instructive one, not least because it is the only conceivable route that might just have secured a Yes vote. With a year’s hindsight it seems clear that there is very little else the Yes campaign could have done.
There was two years of campaigning; knocking a few more doors wasn’t going to do it. There was no good answer on currency, or the broader economy that would have persuaded enough people it was going to happen.
The structural conditions in Scotland were not conducive to persuading a majority to back independence last year.
Alex Salmond will go down in the history books as one of the most talented Scottish politicians, but he wasn’t the man to win a referendum. Nicola Sturgeon looks very much like the woman who could.
This little counterfactual also tells us something about the importance of leadership. Alex Salmond, perhaps the only man who could have got Scotland to a referendum, will go down in the history books as one of the most talented Scottish politicians, but he wasn’t the man to win a referendum.
Nicola Sturgeon looks very much like the woman who could. There are very few like her.
If and when the SNP goes for a second referendum it will need to be absolutely sure that the structural conditions to win it are in place.
It also needs to pray nothing happens to Nicola Sturgeon in the mean time.
Picture courtesy of Ewan McIntosh