London’s benchmark stock index, the FTSE 100, rallied more than 2pc, with banks and energy companies chalking up big gains. The FTSE 250, which tracks medium-sized British companies, surged even more. The pound was rampant, rising steadily as the dramatic Thursday night exit poll solidified into a Friday morning realisation the Conservatives hadn’t just beaten Labour, but secured a slender overall majority.
Not only would the UK now be more business-friendly, with lower bank levies and less nasty market intervention during the coming parliament. Markets were also relieved to avoid the messy negotiations, the days or even weeks of uncertainty, over who would be running the world’s fifth-biggest economy.
The dissolution of parliament last Monday, and subsequent television “debates”, means campaigning has officially begun ahead of the most uncertain election in a generation. There’s no easy way to summarise what might happen on Thursday May 7 – suffice to say that we’ll almost certainly see an indecisive hung Parliament.
The identity of the British government will then depend on frenzied negotiations that could leave the world’s sixth-largest economy in political limbo for weeks or even months. A prolonged struggle over power-sharing – which, as in 1974, might result in a second general election – could unleash big constitutional uncertainties as parties press their respective agendas. A resurgent Scottish National Party may demand another independence vote. We could even see a snap referendum on the UK’s European Union membership.
Alex Salmond was magnanimous in defeat. “Our referendum was an agreed and consented process and Scotland has by a majority decided not, at this stage, to become an independent country,” said the Scottish National Party leader in his concession speech during the early hours of Friday morning.
“I accept that verdict and I call on all of Scotland to follow suit in accepting the democratic verdict of the people of Scotland”.
The vanquished Salmond, though, despite his gracious tone, was also being arch – and even defiant. The key words in the statement above are “at this stage”. Scotland voted No for now, Salmond is saying, but if asked again in a few years’ time the outcome may be different.
I could entirely devote this, my last Sunday Telegraph column before Scottish voters make their historic choice on Thursday, to yet more economic analysis. Having railed against independence over recent weeks and months, arguing it would be to the detriment of both Scotland and the broader UK, I easily develop and amplify the pecuniary narrative.
The Scottish National Party, to be sure, is being economically dishonest, promising far more nice public spending goodies than contentious answers on where the revenue-raising pain will fall. It’s all very well offering free tuition fees, free child care and all the rest of it, while slamming “Tory austerity”. But how will the bills be paid?
This column warned, in February and again in May, that Alex Salmond wasn’t to be under-estimated. The Scottish National Party’s canny leader has a track record of surging late to secure a close-run victory. He did it in the Scottish parliamentary elections of both 2007 and 2011.
The Union is now in grave danger. Over 300 years of history could be reversed when Scotland votes on Thursday 18 September. No-one should be surprised by the latest “shock” polls showing the pro-independence vote within spitting distance of upending the 1707 Act of Union. For some time, the momentum has been with the Yes-camp, as it has steadily come from behind. In mid-2013, 65pc of the Scottish electorate said they wanted to stay in the UK. By May this year, that figure had fallen to just over half.
The media consensus was that Alistair Darling scored a convincing win last week, in the first “televised” debate on Scottish independence. I’m not so sure. Yes, the Former Chancellor, now leading the Better Together campaign to keep Scotland in the UK, did well. Conversely, First Minister Alex Salmond, who’s spent a lifetime campaigning for independence, was often on the ropes. This was a surprise, given the SNP Leader’s usually razor-sharp debating skills.
Yet, with less than six weeks to go before Scotland votes, the ballot could still go either way. While Darling indeed appeared to fare better in the debate, a pair of Ipsos Mori polls found the No-vote remained static before and after the verbal tussle, while support for the pro-independence Yes-camp rose four percentage points to 40pc. A post-debate ICM poll put the two sides even closer, with 42pc signaling they’d vote to break-up the union, compared to 47pc against.
An opinion poll released by Channel Four News this weekend suggested that 51pc of Scots are planning to say “No” in the independence referendum on September 18. In other words, the vote looks extremely close. The “Better Together” camp, which is supposed to be campaigning to keep the UK in tact, is spinning that this display of “majority support” is good news. If only that were so. Just a year ago, the numbers wanting to stay in the UK were far higher – typically around 65pc of the Scottish electorate. And a few recent polls have even shown the share of Scots backing continued UK membership dipping below 50pc.
I’m against Scottish independence. In fact, I’m horrified at the prospect of our country breaking-up. While the Westminster village remains complacent, the ghastly reality is that over 300 years of history could be obliterated during the late summer of 2014. While the UK is four distinct countries, each with its own proud identity, we’re one coherent nation. Cobbled together, in a form that somehow works, our joint history of achievement and success is as rich as any on earth. And the spine of our unique and precious arrangement is the England-Scotland axis, enshrined in the 1707 Act of Union.