In 2012, Alex Salmond picked up the phone to David Cameron and told him that the SNP had been elected to form the majority Scottish Government, with a mandate to negotiate independence and now he wanted to make arrangements for the referendum. The penny dropped for David Cameron. His heart was in his mouth. This could be the end of the United Kingdom. Something had gone really wrong if Scotland now felt this way. He asked Mr Salmond to give him a day to come back to him. He immediately summoned an emergency cabinet meeting. Everyone was aghast. How could they have not seen this coming? The Britain they knew, loved and have worked all their lives for, was under threat, but this time from within.
The alarm was sounded. Mr Cameron made an emergency announcement in the House of Commons. MPs from all sides were dismayed. As one, they promised to get involved to save the union and discussions started on what to do about it. The following day, Mr Cameron called Mr Salmond and said that he wanted to come up to Edinburgh on the first available flight, talk to him about the referendum and to find out for himself the mood in Scotland.
Mr Cameron met Mr Salmond and listened for several hours while Mr Salmond calmly explained how things had reached this point for his party and for many of his fellow Scots. Mr Cameron said very little, still in shock, but promised that he would respect the wishes of the people of Scotland and arrange another meeting soon for referendum negotiations to begin.
Meanwhile, everyone in England started talking about the bombshell dropped by Scotland – in pubs, workplaces, company boardrooms, trade unions, community groups, ordinary families and of course, in the corridors of power. TV and radio schedules were re-arranged to make way for live debates, phone-ins, interviews with politicians and ordinary Scots and English people. Journalists swarmed over Scotland trying to catch the mood and find out what was going on.
Before Mr Cameron could even summon the cabinet again, plans had advanced for how to save the union. A kind of coalition “war cabinet” was formed including ministers, shadow ministers, former British Prime Ministers, retired elder statesmen, and Scottish MPs. The talk was : what had gone wrong? How had we not seen this coming? Why were the Scots so upset? We need to listen to them and understand what is going on. We need to come up with a solution that we can all be happy with. We need to get the people of England and the rest of the UK involved too.
Droves of English MPs headed north of the border to talk to anyone and everyone in Scotland, to find out the problems and discuss the issues earnestly with them. John Major and Tony Blair joined in along with many retired UK government ministers. This was a time for the elder statesmen to pull their nation together and re-build bridges, while there was still time.
It was a hard process and many difficult conversations had to take place between the English and the Scots. Over time, the English realised that they had not taken seriously the issues that many Scots had had with the Westminster system and its policies for a long time. Over time, Scots came to respect the English politicians and people for listening to them and for taking their concerns seriously. There was talk of a new constitutional settlement.
Interest awakened in Wales and Northern Ireland too and the people and politicians in England realised that this was not just about Scotland, but about the UK as a whole.
This time it was Mr Salmond’s turn to pick up the phone to David Cameron. He said that Scottish people had been taken aback by the efforts made by the English to listen to them and to consider solutions seriously with them. He said that support for independence had weakened and that he would like a 3rd option on the referendum ballot paper of further devolution. Mr Cameron was relieved and said that he would support this proposal.
And so, informal talks and discussions moved into more serious political negotiations. A new constitutional settlement was being formed. There was an extensive public consultation with public meetings and online forums springing up across the UK. Politicians laid aside their party differences to build a new consensus that they hoped would plant the UK on solid foundations for decades to come.
Eventually, a blueprint for the “new” UK was hammered out and published. This would be the third option on the referendum ballot paper in Scotland. It would also be debated in Westminster, Cardiff and Belfast with the possibility of referendums in England, Wales and Northern Ireland following the Scottish referendum.
It had been very hard work and the politicians and people of the UK were rightly proud of their achievement. The people and politicians of England in particular had learnt what it meant to be in a union with other countries and that such a union needed hard work and goodwill to keep it going. They were no longer complacent and understood more than ever before that the quality of the relationships between the nations of the UK was the most important foundation of a political union.
So we are now just a few weeks away from the Scottish referendum. There is a sense of calm and sobriety across the UK as Scotland looks set to be the first country in the UK to ratify our new constitutional settlement. So Mr Salmond’s independence bombshell in 2012 has probably been defused : what could have been the end of the UK has now turned into what could be the beginning of a new UK. Our politicians have matured. Our nations have a greater respect for each other than at any time in living memory. The words “United Kingdom” may finally mean what they say.