I have a kind of cherished personal memory of the moment on 2005 general election night when it suddenly dawned on me that the unfolding result was almost ideal for the SNP. That would have seemed a peculiar thing to say out loud at the time - in spite of a couple of constituency gains, Alex Salmond's resumption of the leadership had failed to prevent the party recording its lowest share of the vote since 1987, and unexpectedly slipping behind the Liberal Democrats on the popular vote for the first time since the same year. The political X Factor everyone was marvelling at in Scotland was not the Alex Salmond Factor, but the Charles Kennedy Factor. However, as we all know, Scottish Parliament elections are a very different proposition, and looking ahead two years it just seemed to me that a perfect storm was brewing. By the time of the 2007 Holyrood vote, a tired UK Labour government would be bang in the middle of its third term, with the SNP the obvious recipient of any protest vote. Better still, Labour had done just about well enough in 2005 to make it likely that Tony Blair, weighed down by the baggage of Iraq, would still be in harness as Prime Minister. And of course that's exactly how it all played out - the timing really couldn't have been better. If Blair had called it a day even a few weeks earlier than he did, the 2007 election would have been fought in the midst of a Brown honeymoon, and it seems likely that Labour would have clung on to power.
But while my crystal ball was almost uncannily accurate in 2005, I must admit it couldn't have been more faulty in 2010. I'd been convinced all along that, once again, the SNP's Holyrood hopes hinged almost entirely upon Labour somehow clinging on to power at Westminster. It seemed obvious that with (to coin a phrase) "the Tories back", many of the disgruntled 2007 switchers would revert to the Labour fold in 2011. On that fateful day in May that began with expectations of a Labour-Lib Dem deal, but ended with David Cameron walking up the steps of Downing Street, I felt a sense of hopelessness welling up inside me twice over - firstly because I quite simply despaired at the thought of a Tory-led government, and secondly because it seemed to me that the SNP's period in office was about to draw to a close through no fault of their own. I dearly hoped I was wrong - but the opinion polls in subsequent months followed a depressingly predictable pattern.
Yet here we are a year later with - almost unbelievably - an SNP majority government in place, and with the benefit of hindsight it's now clear that, just like 2005, the cards dealt by the 2010 general election prepared the ground for that outcome in almost ideal fashion. With either a Tory or a Labour majority at Westminster, the shift of the Lib Dem vote en masse to the SNP would never have happened. With a Labour/Lib Dem coalition, any backlash against Nick Clegg's party may well have seen a lot of the votes move in the obvious anti-Labour direction of the Tories. There was of course a direct swing from Labour to SNP on Thursday anyway, so perhaps a second term for Alex Salmond would still have been on the cards without Lib Dem assistance. But would there have been anything like 69 SNP seats if Clegg hadn't fallen for Cameron's charms twelve months ago? I doubt it.
So here's to you, Nick. You made a catastrophic decision, but just as Margaret Thatcher was the unwitting midwife of Scottish Home Rule, so it appears the hapless federal Lib Dem leader is the midwife of the independence referendum that so many thought could never happen.