Salmond's momentum sets course for independence

SO Scotland is on the road to independence. There are many who say it will never happen, but they are the same people who said the SNP would never be the largest party in the Scottish Parliament, let alone win an outright majority. They are the people who said that devolution would kill off all support for independence, and that the pro-union Labour party would always reign supreme. And they have been proven wrong at every turn. Polls show that only a minority of Scots – 30 per cent or so – support independence, but political momentum is a strange thing and SNP leader Alex Salmond has it in spades.

Where did it all go wrong? It would be easy to blame Ed Miliband, but Scottish Labour's problems predate him by many years. The Labour-led administration at Holyrood, in power from the start of devolution in 1999 to 2007, was truly awful. It was nothing more than a puppet government for New Labour, East Germany to Blair and Brown's Moscow. Like East Germany, it collapsed shortly before the mother regime; it was ridiculous to think it would ascend once Labour was booted out of Westminster. Worse still, Labour has treated its Scottish voters with nothing short of contempt, buying their votes with generous government handouts but doing nothing to improve their lives. Few people got less out of the Brown boom years than working class Scots.

With the exception of Donald Dewar, the inaugural First Minister, all Scottish Labour leaders have been entirely uninspiring. Most people would struggle to pick Dewar's successors – Henry McLeish, Jack McConnell, Wendy Alexander or Iain Gray – out of a lineup of one. American pundits often talk about the “beer test” when assessing a politician's likeability. I could easily drink several pints with Alex Salmond but I would struggle to know what to say to Iain Gray if I bumped into him in the street. Scotland loves a character and Labour doesn't have one.
I should confess more than a passing interest in Thursday's result. Both my parents are Scottish and most of my family still live there. I went to the University of Glasgow, graduating shortly after Salmond became First Minister for the first time. My first job in journalism was at The Herald, the Scottish broadsheet. It would have been nice to have had the option of staying in Glasgow – a city that is to my mind more inviting and familiar than London – or to think that I might return one day. Sadly, I can't entertain the idea of going back.

Because Scotland is a deeply depressing place. The statistics about life expectancy being lower in some parts of Glasgow than in the Gaza strip are trotted out all the time, but less attention is paid to Scotland's crumbling institutions. Its newspapers, once able to give Fleet Street titles a run for their money, are in such precipitous decline that ailing English publications look positively healthy in comparison. Scottish universities – at one point the envy of the rest of the UK – don't charge tuition fees and are suffering as a result. Their creeping inferiority will only become more apparent when most of their English rivals start charging £9,000 a year.

Although few Scots are willing to face up to the scale of the problem, there is an undercurrent of malaise that is hard to shake off. That's why Salmond's bright, confident, presidential campaign made such a huge impact; Scots need a glimmer of hope, no matter how false, and the SNP was the only party offering that.

The huge paradox is that Scottish independence would make the country's problems much worse. Starved of the above-average funding it gets from Westminster, Scotland would be even more of an economic basket-case, unable to care for its ageing population let alone service its huge welfare bill. Although the SNP's roster of populist policies includes a reduction in corporation tax, its economic problems run deeper than that. In east Glasgow, a staggering 17.7 per cent of the population claim incapacity benefit and 7.7 per cent are on Jobseekers' Allowance. A generation of workless households, kept sweet by generous government handouts, have little appeal for businesses thinking of moving north of the border.

For those of us who are ardently pro-union, the case for keeping Scotland in the UK is increasingly hard to make. Without the huge cost of Scotland's welfare bill and its public sector – which accounts for around a quarter of employment – the UK would be a more prosperous country.
Although a resurgence in Scottish Labour is essential to keep separatism at bay, the Tories must also take their share of the blame. Salmond's coalition of voters included small business owners and farmers, people with socially conservative values who want lower taxes. Even Margaret Thatcher, Scotland's favourite hate-figure, won 21 seats in 1983; David Cameron got just one in 2010.

Yet the Scottish Conservatives are a joke. To get a sense of just how hilariously bad they are, you should watch their party political broadcast (link here http://tinyurl.com/6hjft6u). It begins with leader Annabel Goldie pottering around the garden talking to her pets: “Right, birds fed... That's you, you've had yer biscuit. Be a good girl.” If ever there were a party crying out for Cameron's image-maker Steve Hilton, it is the Scottish Tories – but Tory HQ seems entirely uninterested.

Salmond is too clever to call a referendum any time soon. Instead, he will push for the power to raise tax and borrow on the bond markets. Westminster won't play ball of course, and Salmon will use George Osborne's intransigence to explain away all of Scotland's ills. Then, after four years of “Westminster cuts”, he will pose the question. I for one wouldn't bet against him.