Alex Massie was correct in his review of 2012 to lament the lack of anything “edifying or uplifting” in the referendum campaign, but I am not so sure it was a wasted year. If we win a Yes vote in two years’ time I think historians will look back on five key developments in 2012.
1. The launch of Yes Scotland as a broad popular movement and the appointment of Blair Jenkins. The launch event itself was a bit of a mixed bag, but the approach of the Yes campaign to try and mobilise a broad range of people beyond the pro-independence parties is a key strategic decision and 140,000 signatures is a very good start. Of course it is only a start. The appointment of Blair Jenkins already looks like a very good move. He has demonstrated his ability to make the case for a Yes vote on TV in a reasonable and credible manner.
2. The Edinburgh Agreement. The squabbling leading up to it was a voter turn-off, but it provides an important guarantee that the referendum result will be respected and it changes the dynamic of the debate. The unionists will still argue that we, “will not be allowed…” to do various things (EU, sterling, etc) but with ever decreasing credibility. Credit should be paid to David Cameron for putting democracy before partisan advantage, but it is clear that Alex Salmond was the big winner in the pre-referendum manoeuvres. The unionists can fairly be portrayed as those who blocked a DevoPlus option and will consequently be much less credible when they come belatedly with a jam tomorrow proposal.
3. Johann Lamont and Labour’s decision to mount an assault on universalism and Scottish distinctiveness/devolution was astonishing and could be the single most important factor in the run up to the referendum. The party is now locked into a neo-liberal strategy of cuts, means testing and the de facto managed decline of Scottish society. They are gambling that an assault saying we can’t afford to be independent, that we are dependent on London hand-outs will undermine confidence in Scottish economic prospects enough to discourage Yes voters even if it is catastrophic in short term Labour electoral prospects in Scotland. It is almost as astonishing that the Labour Party in Scotland has so far seen no significant public dissent from this strategy. Although the key development might be within the trade union movement in Scotland.
4. The “survival” of the Euro. The prospect of a Euro collapse that would undermine confidence in constitutional change remains the biggest threat to the Yes campaign, but in spite of the absence of a magic wand solution in 2012 things are looking more stable. Significant progress has also been made on the economic case for Scottish independence. The Scottish Government has had some success in getting over the message that Scotland pays more in taxes than it receives in expenditure. The subsidised Scotland myth will never quite die so long as Paxman sits on his perch but serious journalists now take a more balanced view. Even Cameron and Miliband accept that Scotland can afford to be independent even if they quibble on the details.
5. The moves towards a referendum to take the UK out of the EU. It is increasingly clear that the Conservatives will go into the next EU election with a promise to deliver a referendum on membership of the EU. Ed Miliband will probably be forced to make the same promise. Apart from the fun it provides in terms of defining who is really the separatist it significantly changes the dynamic of the Scottish independence referendum debate. No longer can a No vote be considered a vote for stability or certainty. And Scotland can only protect our place in the EU by voting Yes to independence and representing our own interests in Brussels. The alternative is to leave the EU with the little Englanders, whatever the result of an EU referendum in Scotland.
Of course there are many challenges which remain. We need to see the Better-Togetherers being asked as many questions as the proponents of independence. We need to hope that the SNP have lost some of their hubris. It is a good sign that Nicola Sturgeon is taking on a more prominent role. And that links with the need to better address the gender differential in the polls. But to paraphrase Wordsworth it is a great time to be alive and engaged in the debate. Happy New Year!