With culture vultures flocking to Edinburgh for the International Festival, Scotland’s politicians are enjoying the last of a summer break they all desperately needed after May’s dramatic Holyrood elections. But Alex Salmond, triumphantly re-elected as first minister, will soon take centre stage again to show how he will use the unprecedented overall majority his Scottish National party won, after four years as a minority administration.
Stand by for fireworks, for there will also be clashes aplenty between Mr Salmond and his counterparts in London over the Scotland bill the UK’s coalition government is currently piloting through Westminster. A list of demands has been tabled, including control over corporation tax, excise duties and Crown Estate revenue, that David Cameron, Prime Minister, is unlikely to concede.
The Scottish government has a veto, since it must also endorse the bill. But the UK government could drop the whole thing if the Scottish Nationalist Party proves too obstructive. Chances are Mr Salmond will not risk losing the bill, especially since he desperately needs its enhanced borrowing powers as he struggles to reconcile tight funding from Westminster with his generous election commitments.
All this Sturm und Drang must be viewed in light of the looming drama over the SNP’s promise to hold a referendum on independence. The nationalists were committed to such a referendum in the last parliament too, but were probably quietly relieved when the other opposition parties blocked their plans. Opinion polls consistently show no more than 30 per cent of the electorate are in favour of Scotland going it alone.
Salmond’s outright majority will now limit his wiggle room on the issue, though he will not hold any vote until the second half of his term. In fact, he appears most likely to await the outcome of the next UK general election, which must be held no later than May, 2015.
This is when the devolution saga will get really interesting. The SNP is confident it will at least win support for more economic powers in a two-question referendum, even if it did not gain enough support for independence. But the nationalists also know they have little chance of gaining support for more radical constitutional upheaval if the economic climate remains grim.
So Mr Salmond’s best chance of winning a vote for independence would be if the British economy enjoys a strong recovery. With the Conservatives permanently sidelined in Scottish politics, the only real challenge to the SNP could come from a resurgent Labour party, which lost many seats in its west of Scotland heartlands in May. A Labour recovery is unlikely, however, if the UK coalition’s austerity strategy is vindicated.
With Mr Cameron’s Tories out of favour in Scotland, the one thing that could tip a majority of Scots towards independence is the prospect – or reality – of a Conservative UK government being elected in 2015, untrammelled by Liberal Democrats. So perhaps the interests of Mr Salmond and Mr Cameron are more closely aligned than people realise?
Hot free ticket
Amid Edinburgh’s plethora of cultural offerings, one of the most popular is proving to be the recently refurbished National Museum of Scotland, where admission is free. A £47m redevelopment has returned the listed Victorian building to its former glory and created a magnificent showcase for the astonishing range of artefacts collected by Scottish explorers, entrepreneurs and colonisers.
Sir Angus Grossart, the veteran Edinburgh banker who chairs its board of trustees, glories in the fact that 80 per cent of the museum’s 8,000-plus objects have never been on display before. He reckons an educational system influenced by the Scottish enlightenment gave his compatriots a deep interest in other cultures. Certainly a key enlightenment figure, Adam Ferguson – one of the founders of sociology, and an important influence on Adam Smith – was fascinated by how different societies developed. It was a curiosity obviously maintained by generations of wandering Scots.
That’s a riot
Best riot-related joke during a so-far very soggy Edinburgh Fringe festival, from Fred MacAulay, a Scottish stand-up comedian. “We already have water cannons in Edinburgh – we call it the weather.”