SNP narrowly wins Holyrood elections and enters government for the first time. “It is very clear indeed which party has lost this election, and the Labour party no longer has any moral authority left to govern Scotland,” says an ebullient Alex Salmond, SNP leader, and now the first minister of a minority Scottish government. “Scotland has changed for ever and for good. Never again will we say that the Labour party assumes it has a divine right to rule Scotland.”
The SNP’s impressive electioneering in the last two months of the Holyrood campaign turns a double-digit poll lead for Labour into an SNP overall majority. The landslide victory gives Salmond the mandate to demand a historic referendum on Scottish independence. David Cameron concedes this in principle but vows to fight independence with “every fibre I have”.
Cameron suggests that the referendum should be “sooner rather than later”. Salmond responds by proposing his ideal question: “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?” Downing Street rules out a question on “devo max” being an option in the referendum. It will be either yes or no.
José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, casts doubt on claims by Salmond that an independent Scotland would automatically stay in the EU. Barroso says new states that hoped to join the EU would have to apply for membership in their own right, appearing to quash Salmond’s claims that an independent Scotland would inherit its share of UK membership.
Cameron and Salmond sign a 30-clause Edinburgh agreement, which commits to a single yes/no independence referendum in autumn 2014. It will allow 16- and 17-year-olds to take part in the ballot.
Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence party, is forced out of the Canons’ Gait pub on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile after the landlord takes fright at demonstrators disrupting a press conference with shouts of “racist”, “scum” and “homophobe”. Farage is whisked away in a police riot van under a tirade of abuse from a crowd of about 50 young protesters.
Salmond launches his government’s independence blueprint, calling it a mission statement for the future. The 670-page white paper makes the case for independence and promises a revolution in social policy, with childcare at its heart. Alistair Darling, leader of the campaign to keep the union, brands the document a “work of fiction, full of meaningless assertions”.
On his first visit to Edinburgh as governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney says that a currency union would be doable but difficult. “A durable, successful currency union requires some ceding of national sovereignty,” he says, following a first private meeting with Salmond.
Darling speaks of his anger at a “disgraceful” internet campaign by nationalists against those who speak up for the union. He says Salmond could stop the “vile abuse” being meted out by the so-called cyber-nats, but had chosen not to do so.
The three main parties unite to rule out a currency union with an independent Scotland. The chancellor, George Osborne, tells an audience in Edinburgh: “If Scotland walks away from the UK, it walks away from the UK pound.” Danny Alexander, the Liberal Democrat Treasury chief secretary, and shadow chancellor Ed Balls endorse the speech.
Gordon Brown steps out of the shadows into the heart of the independence debate, outlining a vision for a “new Scotland in a new Britain”. The former prime minister announces that he plans to play a major role in the rest of the referendum campaign, and will speak across the UK. In a speech in Glasgow he puts forward radical proposals for more devolution.
A controversial interview in GQ, in which Salmond has warm words for President Vladimir Putin of Russia, helps shore up the morale of the Better Together campaign. Salmond is heavily criticised for telling the magazine that he felt admiration for “certain aspects” of Putin. “He’s restored a substantial part of Russian pride, and that must be a good thing,” the first minister says.
Salmond’s deputy, Nicola Sturgeon, says the success of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, where Eilidh Child, below left, won a silver for Scotland, will propel the country to back independence. “I think the momentum is with us. I think, as we come out of the Commonwealth Games at the weekend, that is us in the final straight of the campaign and you will see that momentum quite visibly.”
Darling celebrates a surprise win over Salmond in the first televised debate, harrying him on the issue of the future currency. Following the debate, the polls have no on 55% compared with 35% for yes – a high point for the Better Together campaign.
Salmond emerges as the clear winner of the second debate. In an ill-tempered affair, he forces Darling on to the back foot on currency, the privatising of the NHS and Labour’s decision to partner with the Conservatives in the Better Together campaign. Next day sees the first postal votes cast; nearly 850,000 (20% of the electorate) have registered to vote by mail.
A shock poll gives the yes campaign a narrow lead for the first time. The YouGov poll for the Sunday Times sent shockwaves through the political establishment north and south of the border as it showed yes ahead by 51%-49%, excluding don’t knows. Darling said: “These polls can and must now serve as a wake-up call to anyone who thought the referendum was a foregone conclusion.”
Westminster scrambles. Prime minister’s questions is cancelled to allow Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg to campaign in Scotland, where they pledge new legislation giving Scotland greater powers over income tax and welfare, ready for the May 2015 general election. The move is panned as “desperate” by the nationalists.
An emotional Cameron illustrates the high stakes at play when he pleads with voters not to use the poll to give the “effing Tories” a kick. The BBC reports that a series of banks, including Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds, are planning to move their headquarters or re-register in England in the event of independence.
During a tempestuous press conference, Salmond calls for an official inquiry into the Treasury’s “deliberate attempt to cause uncertainty in the financial markets” by leaking details of RBS’s fears about the break-up of the union. He mocks the BBC’s claims to impartiality.
An Opinium/Observer poll suggests a barrage of negative news for the ‘yes’ campaign, from expected price rises in shops to the relocation of banks in the event of independence, has had an impact. Support for the no campaign is on 53% and yes 47%, once the don’t knows are excluded.
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