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Inside Track: It pays to be prepared for the unexpected

At a Downing Street reception three years ago senior No 10 officials quietly expressed their hopes for an uneventful Christmas.

It had already been a long and bruising six months for the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat Government.

U-turns, a resignation and the Coalition's planned austerity measures had garnered negative headline after negative headline. And yet by December the stream of bad-news stories appeared to have halted for just long enough to allow some to hope for a relatively quiet festive season.

It was not to be.

Only hours later it emerged that a number of Coalition ministers had been secretly recorded telling their constituents that they disagreed with official government policy.

Then came the bombshell.

LibDem Business Secretary Vince Cable was on tape saying he would declare "war" on the Murdoch empire, then attempting an £8 billion business deal over which Mr Cable was supposed to act as an impartial, and final, judge.

It was, needless to say, not a quiet Christmas for No 10 staffers.

Observers might be forgiven for thinking they already know that 2014 will not be a quiet time in Scotland.

From the Commonwealth Games to the centenary of the start of the First World War to the independence referendum and so on the calendar is already stuffed fit to bursting.

Yet the impact of the unexpected cannot be underestimated, or often calculated, on politics as much as on the sporting field.

The example of the 1995 Quebec independence referendum is interesting in this regard. Just months before the vote the high-profile nationalist politician Lucien Bouchard, who would go on to become the leader of the Yes campaign, developed an incredibly rare and potentially fatal disease. It was the stuff of tabloid headlines - Necrotizing fasciitis, also known as the flesh-eating bug.

Surgeons battled away for two days to try to halt the spread of the disease. In the end his life was saved only by the amputation of one of his legs.

Even now senior Canadian politicians express bafflement at the development. Both sides admit they find it impossible to assess the effect it had, among the many thousands of events in a hard fought referendum battle that finally ended in only the narrowest of victories for the No campaign.

The unexpected things that shape Scottish politics this year are unlikely to be as dramatic as Bouchard's illness.

But their effects could be.

While senior pro-Union sources increasingly believe there are only a handful of key "set piece" events left which could offer the SNP a chance to turn around the polls, both sides insist that they would be foolish to ignore the potential for "events" to derail their plans. Indeed, the fear and opportunity for both sides is that the relative stability of the polls could amplify any such effect.

For months the numbers have been implying that public opinion is also fairly stable, with support for independence lagging far behind support for staying in the Union. Any small but sustained change to that gap, in either direction, would be interpreted as significant and, potentially, momentum.

It should not be forgotten that the outcome of the referendum is not this only thing that will be shaped this year. For all sides in the debate there still lies ahead the challenge to define the peace - to set out their clear vision for how a future Scotland would look, independence or no independence.

A large part of what happens over the next nine months could depend on the ability of politicians to roll with events - and, of course, to capitalise upon them.

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