Fraser Nelson

Now Salmond can begin his battle for indepedence

Now Salmond can begin his battle for indepedence
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After all the carry-on with the new Scottish Parliament building, they may have to rebuild it yet again to accommodate Alex Salmond’s head. Never the smallest object, it will have swelled dangerously today – and (I hate to say it) deservedly. This was his victory. Only Smart Alec can pitch simultaneously to the left and the right, and get away with it. “The SNP has become the conservative party of Scotland,” a banker friend emails from Edinburgh. “Almost every Scot I know who is a conservative in London is now strongly pro-SNP”. Salmond talks about low tax and enterprise, etc, while vowing to keep state spending up at Soviet levels. My gran once summed up his debating technique. “If he knows the answer, he gloats. If he doesn’t, he laughs.” He gets away with it.

And how? Infuriatingly for his enemies, he always has. His dad was a leftie, known to his Navy shipmates as "Uncle Joe", who converted to nationalism later. His describes his mum as a "Winston Churchill Conservative". Salmond was the product of an odd political union, and tries to continue it now – and thus built the coalition that has just given him a majority.

But will he get away with independence? My former Scotsman colleague Hamish Macdonell gave his thoughts earlier – and I agree that it is a brave man who would bet against Salmond. My own thoughts are that Scots will never vote for the wacky idea of separation from England: do we need a new currency, passport, military, etc? Do we want to make foreigners of our friends and relatives on the other side of a patrolled border? To be gobbled up by the EU? Our two nations are too entwined: culturally, politically, socially. Devolution has meant that almost no one in London understands Scotland anymore, and most Tories know the south of France better than they do Scotland. But the bond between the peoples is so strong that it makes no sense to put up walls, after a generation of taking them down.

And I doubt it will come to that. Salmond owes his victory today to playing down talk about independence. The Scottish Parliament has no powers to hold a referendum (it was designed to kill, not nurture, nationalism), but Cameron would probably grant one if there was a Holyrood majority for one – as there will be now. Salmond would pick his moment, probably 2012, when the cuts are at their deepest and Tory government at its least popular. But the more Scots look at the issue of independence, the more they’d baulk at it. As would the press. Salmond likes to tease journalists by offering them ambassadorships (I have put in my request for Stockholm), but if this were ever seriously on the cards than the mood would change. In the 1990s, Labour mounted a brutal "divorce is never easy" campaign, which was very effective. Salmond would be vulnerable to this now. In the 1990s he won around The Sun, which produced stickers in Scotland saying “Rise now, and be a nation again” (a line from an old Corries song). But when the News of the World backed it last week, it did so on the explicit grounds that it supported the union.

The support Salmond has soaked up today is very conditional. It could well be that a battle for the union will be the next battle for Scotland; a battle that should be easily won. But after what Salmond has pulled off today, it would be dangerous to take victory for granted.

P.S. A tweet from a Scottish Labour activist, Blair Macdougal, jumped out at me. "Note to some Labour colleagues: what happens to Labour in Scotland matters to you. This can't be dismissed or isolated. That is all." In other words: please, London Labour, don't write off Scotland as Terra Salmonda, a hostile land tended to by your defective B-Team Scottish Division.

I feel for Blair. The Tories did this: Scotland has become, to them, a foreign country. Devolution creates this division, and even London Labour is starting to see how much better the national map looks if Scotland is airbushed out of the picture. Tam Dalyell's famous prediction, that devolution would be "a motorway to independence with no exits," starts to look a little less risible.