Alex Salmond and the yes campaign lost their battle for an independent Scotland - but by letting the genie of devolved powers out of the bottle, they did us all a favour
It’s been just days since the Scottish referendum, and like the other 800,000 Scots living in England, nothing much else has been on my mind. Is the Union with England, started by the Scots King James VI taking the English crown in 1604 and then the Act of Union in 1707, a good or bad thing, a drama or a tragedy?
Robert Burns said “We were bought and sold for English Gold, such a parcel of rogues in a nation.” I think the Union should be a win-win arrangement playing to each nation’s strengths, but it’s clear that there are huge misunderstandings and mistrust between Westminster and Holyrood.
Westminster was caught napping; it didn’t realise how serious things had become. If nothing else, it should have read the body language of the Scottish Parliament building. I tell my clients that their buildings will give off messages about them, to the public and to its users. The Scottish Parliament has bucket loads of messages for Westminster. The neo-gothic Houses of Parliament in Westminster is a rational building. It recalls Anglican churches or the architecture of public schools. It’s a disciplined series of boxes built on a regular grid.
Alex Salmond played Cameron like an old bagpipe, extracting all the best terms for the referendum
The Scottish Parliament is so so different. It’s a romantic building by a poetic Catalan architect, emerging from the nearby landscape and recalling upturned boats on a loch-side. It cost a fortune but the Scots didn’t care - I know because I interviewed the client when I judged it for the Stirling Prize, they were making a statement.
And the statement was to Westminster. It says we are different and proud of it. It says we are defiant and will not be constrained by you - least of all in what we can spend on our parliament building.
Unfortunately prime minister David Cameron and others were wholly illiterate to the language of architecture and underestimated the depth of feeling that is running deep in Scotland.
Alex Salmond, outgoing first minister for Scotland, was riding this wave and yet in the end it was his head, yet another Scottish head, that has ended in an English basket.
It so nearly could have been the rare sight of an English head on the block. For if Cameron had been the PM to lose the Union he would have to have gone. If the referendum had been held a week earlier, it would have been a toss of a coin as to who would have won.
In truth, it’s a poor fate for Salmond as he is surely the cleverest politician in the British Isles. He played Cameron like an old bagpipe, extracting all the best terms for the referendum; the length of the run-up, the yes vote - the positive optimistic vote - being to go not to stay, giving votes to 16 year olds (that might have backfired as the young took the long, post oil, view) and even holding the vote just after the Edinburgh Festival when all good Scots artists with romantic blood in their veins would put on a pro yes show.
Salmond, like many a talented Scot before him, was defeated by a lesser opponent with perhaps a better cause. The huge irony is that Cameron’s head was saved by his old arch enemy, Gordon Brown, who emerged from the shadows to give a series of bravura performances to clinch success for the Union.
But what next? If the vote was lost, the message is clear: the Scots, many of whom voted no for “fear of flying”, are fed up of central government rule from Westminster.
They believe more independence can release their talents - and nobody can say the Scots are not talented with strings of inventions to their name.
The top 20 Scottish inventions are reckoned to be: anaesthetics, decimal points, cloning, fax machines, golf, logarithms, Macintosh raincoats, refrigerators, steam engines, telephones, breech loading rifles, telegraph, radar, macadamised roads, marmalade (breakfast really isn’t breakfast without marmalade), iron bridges and pneumatic tyres. Not bad for a nation with the population of south London.
Westminster promised, at the last ditch, more devolution and it will be held to it. And not just for Scotland: the genie is out of the devolution bottle and devolved powers to energise Northern Ireland, Wales and the English regions - who hate Westminster’s dead hand as much as the Scots, will be granted.
The Scots have done the Union, all of the Union, a great favour. Freedom is infectious but it’s a disease that creates self-reliance and success. Of course we are going to see a mini surge as all those projects that were stalled in fear of a destabilising yes note go ahead.
Instead of this recovery from recession only increasing wealth in London (surely a city state of its own), we might look forward to a federation of regions and countries prospering under their own steam. Steam power being - of course - a Scottish invention.
Jack Pringle is principal, managing director EMEA at Pringle Brandon Perkins + Will