Never before has there been a debate like this in the UK. After two years in which almost all the pundits believed that the campaign for independence in Scotland was heading for defeat, the weekend brought an opinion poll that put the ‘Yes’ camp in front for the first time ever.
The result has electrified the body politic. Party leaders abandoned PMQs, Gordon Brown has been trotted out to unveil the timetable for new power for the Scottish Parliament and the SNP has proclaimed the ‘No’ campaign to be ‘collapsing’. The old phrase of a week being a long time in politics could not be more appropriate.
I write in the aftermath of a visit from all of the main UK party leaders with David Cameron giving what could be his most impassioned speech ever. With the First Minister Alex Salmond just having held a press briefing to many of the world’s leading media representatives, and with tense scenes as both sides confronted each other on the streets of Glasgow. We have even had perhaps the biggest political event involving young people in Scotland’s history as 8,000 first time voters debated independence which created a huge wave of activity on Twitter as the leading trend in the UK yesterday. A legion of political heavyweights have been pounding the streets of Scotland to make the case for their view as voters juggle the arguments in what has become at times a vitriolic debate.
And actually this is as it should be. This is the most momentous decision that Scotland has taken as a democratic country and passions are running extremely high. The First Minister has received death threats and Labour politician Jim Murphy MP was egged. Both perpetrators have been rightly punished.
As well as the politicians, business leaders have joined the debate, apparently spurred by the closeness of the vote. ‘Business for Scotland’ has full page adds in leading papers and many of Scotland’s biggest financial institutions have just announced contingency plans to move to England in the event of a Yes vote. The political temperature only looks set to rise as the parties join in what could yet become a frenzy of claim and counter claim.
It may be painful to watch, but such a heated debate is almost inevitable now because of the closeness of the polls. Hopefully it will be cathartic, but I fear the wounds opened in Scotland in recent weeks will be there for a long time yet.
So what might be the impact of the vote and what can we expect thereafter. Whatever the outcome it is likely to be decisive. Even a single percentage point of victory will deliver either a continuation of the UK, or an independent Scotland. Neither side is expected to cry foul and it will be a case of to the winner the spoils.
A Yes vote will start a new journey for Scotland. Negotiations are expected to take 18 months, but we must hope it will be less. At this point is worth pointing out that this has actually been an extremely hard working and effective Scottish Government in terms of delivering investment. The planning process has been speeded up, national priorities established and progressed and the government is generally highly regarded in business circles.
However a Yes vote will create a huge challenge in calming the markets and fears of a flood of cash and investment out of the country. The SNP machine that has worked so effectively since first being elected will undoubtedly work even harder to make a success of its project, and hunger for investment will be substantial. There will however be deep wounds and pulling the country together looks like a task that will require all of Alex Salmond’s formidable skills.
The impact on Westminster is hard to calculate, but David Cameron looks likely to stay, despite the loss of Scotland, and Ed Miliband looks similarly secure, although arguably a lack of enthusiasm for Miliband has been a far bigger factor in people turning to the Yes camp than anything David Cameron has done.
In the event of a No vote, there will undoubtedly be soul searching and questions raised within the SNP, but Alex Salmond looks unlikely to resign as First Minister, though senior nationalist commentator George Kerevan has speculated that it might happen. That being the case, the SNP can be expected to quickly reorientate itself from being the party of independence to being the best party to stand up for Scotland. The SNP will no doubt claim credit for any of the new powers coming to the Scottish Parliament as a result of the referendum debate.
And how does all of this impact on the general election? Well, if the vote is Yes, then the election will become largely irrelevant in Scotland. MPs will be elected to run until the newly independent Scotland is created, but voters are well used to spotting when elections don’t matter. The turnout could be very low in the general election, just as it is expected to be high in the referendum. And the SNP can be expected to have a good chance of following through having won the referendum.
In the event of a No vote the outcome is far harder to predict, but again it would be a brave person that bets against the SNP doing well. In Westminster elections the SNP always polls lower, however underlying all assumptions is the biggest of health warnings. This is uncharted territory for Scotland and nobody knows what the politics of the next week will bring. All we know is that it is going to get increasingly tense and that for now the divisions will deepen. This coming week could be, by a country mile, the longest in Scotland’s modern political history.