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24 September 2014
Who is
the real
first minister?
Kenneth Roy

Drawing by Bob Smith

The panda isn't pregnant. Scotland isn't pregnant either – except with the possibility of years of social disunity. The panda and the Scots have something in common. They keep trying, but fail to deliver.

Alex Salmond will go down in history – sadly, his ardent supporter Tom Devine may then be too old to write it – as one of the worst losers in British electoral history. He will be remembered as the leader who accepted the democratic will of the people, but only for a few hours.

UDI. The prospect is thrilling. Scotland a pariah on the world stage. Our last remaining ally, North Korea, considering its position. Businesses fleeing, only to find the border sealed at Berwick. Draconian economic sanctions leave the Yes voters of West Dunbartonshire starving in the streets. Eventually peace restored, Holyrood abolished, Scotland renamed North Britain. The panda still not pregnant. So much for UDI.

Two first ministers co-exist. The first first minister announces that Scotland can simply declare independence without further consultation with its people or partners and talks wildly of 'holding feet to the fire' – his opponents' feet. The phrase could have marched straight out of the Jim Sillars' Book of Reckoning.

The second first minister delivers a measured speech to the Scottish Parliament congratulating Scotland on becoming the most politically engaged nation in the civilised world (as well as the wealthiest and most tolerant, presumably).

Which is the real first minister? Hard to say. For on the same day that the second first minister adopts his statesmanlike persona, the first first minister pops up unexpectedly in, of all places, that retirement home for deranged eccentrics, the letters page of the (Glasgow) Herald, and for no better reason than to drip vitriol on that thoughtful journalist, David Torrance, for having the audacity to write a book about him. Why would either first minister want to demean himself in such a petty fashion?

Here is a practical scenario. Alex Salmond gradually fades from view or to the next best thing, a weekly berth in the Sunday Herald with occasional guest appearances on TV 44.7; the extremists of the nationalist movement are marginalised somehow; the business of good government resumes.

In this scenario, the decent people in the SNP will wake up one morning – though it may not be any morning soon – and realise that they have a country to run. It may not be the wealthiest or the most tolerant, but it's still a country worth running, even if the poor thing has had precious little attention in the last two years from a bureaucracy dedicated to a single defeated cause. Maybe it's about time.

It is difficult to be sanguine that this practical scenario will necessarily prevail. When I look back on the Independent on Sunday's post-referendum commentary – full of stuff about a new beginning – I have to remind myself that I wrote it only last Saturday morning. My optimism lasted no longer than Alex Salmond's faith in the democratic process.

Here are a couple of hunches. The authoritarian drift of the present policies will continue. We are likely to see more armed police on the streets, the state guardian scheme will be zealously pursued, there will be extensive official prying into the lives of children and young people. The Scottish Review has endlessly exposed and probed these developments, all symptomatic of a larger and disturbing trend, but to no avail. It is clear that the ruling party rather likes the sound of all of them and that the opposition is too enfeebled to put up a fight even if it so desired.

Along with the authoritarian tendency, we will see an increasingly shrill populism clamouring for a second referendum or some unilateral declaration. This movement began with impressive speed within hours of the result. Exploiting the virus of social media, it may grow in strength and intensify in feeling for a while, although it is equally possible that it will gradually fade.

Meanwhile, the outlook is not exactly encouraging. Although Gordon Brown's silent majority have spoken – all two million of them – there is a limit to the legitimacy of their wishes. There has even been an idiotic challenge to the authenticity of the result and by implication to the integrity of Mary Pitcaithly and her team of counters.

More worryingly, our masters appear to believe that the people can be re-educated to vote Yes next time – if we even need a next time. The first first minister has articulated a particular dislike of the counter-revolutionaries known as old people, who voted for the union in unacceptable numbers and, in the absence of any political correction centres for the elderly, can expect to have their bus passes cancelled.

On 26 March in this space, I celebrated my birthday by declaring the result six months in advance – No, 52; Yes, 48 – and called for an immediate cessation of campaigning. At a time when No was well ahead, this was bold forecasting. It turned out to be wrong, but only about the margin. I wrote that we could expect a political Commonwealth Games with much fluttering of Saltires, followed by 'at least one poll declaring Yes in front', and went on to prophesy that 'the winner will be declared the loser: a quintessential Scottish outcome', that nothing would be resolved, that the campaign for a second referendum would begin at once and that 'as usual, we wuz robbed'. No soothsaying involved here. All of it drearily predictable.

What I couldn't have predicted – it never entered my head – was that the first first minister, his ambition thwarted by constitutional means, would immediately propose unconstitutional means of achieving his dream.

A voice of reason in the ruling party, John Swinney, has declared that the SNP respects the decision of the people; Salmond now seems to agree. That is progress, although it is astonishing that it has been necessary for the SNP to clarify its position. But it has failed to reject a second referendum despite Salmond's pledge in the final days of the campaign that the result would settle the question 'for a lifetime'. We are told by un-named sources that this was the first minister's way of 'maximising the Yes vote'; in other words his assurance was disingenuous.

Nor has the party rejected nearly emphatically enough the idea of an illegal coup. Unless it does, it stands as much chance of being re-elected as the panda has of becoming pregnant.

Kenneth Roy is editor of the Scottish Review