The Scottish Question

John Rentoul

previous The Scottish QuestionI have written about David Cameron’s character in The Independent on Sunday today, prompted by our ComRes poll which asked respondents to say which of a set of 14 statements applied to him. Apart from being “out of touch with ordinary people” — not fatal but not great — little about him seemed to have made much impression.

I was, incidentally, struck that only 10 per cent thought that he “seems to have similar views to those of Tony Blair”. So much for the heir, then.

Cameron is adroit at responding to events, but not at making them happen, which means that his personality has not yet strongly come across to people. One of the examples I give is his “Lincoln First Inaugural” — for the Union and against Secession — speech in Edinburgh on Friday. In this he was responding to Alex Salmond rather than taking the initiative, but it required emollience and he did it well.

By which I mean that Scotland and the universe is against him, and he managed not to make matters worse. Which, while there is a majority among the Scots people against independence, is all he needs to do.

As an English Conservative Prime Minister, Cameron cannot be too sure how this is going to work out. Even Blair, like Cameron English with Scottish roots, could not be sure. Only while Gordon Brown was Prime Minister did a referendum on independence seem a hopeless proposition for the Scottish National Party.

Scotland has its own media-political culture, and Blair and Cameron have both been caught out by it. As leader of the opposition, Blair tripped up in an interview because he had never heard of the Claim of Right. Last week, Cameron in his speech said that the Scotland Bill now going through the Westminster Parliament would give the Edinburgh Parliament the power to raise taxes “for the first time”. Surely he knows that the second question in the devolution referendum of 1997 granted the Scottish Parliament the power to vary the basic rate of income tax by up to 3p in the pound? It is a power of which Salmond, the consummate opportunist, once took advantage to promise a tax cut. (A tax cut that never materialised.)

These finer points do not matter much in themselves. Such as the intricate details of devo-max, which sounds like a loo cleaner, and about which Scottish journalists and politicians are inordinately interested. True, Cameron’s offer in last week’s speech to consider “what further powers could be devolved” if Scotland votes no to independence was inconsistent. The Prime Minister says he wants a straight yes or no on independence, not complicated by other options for “maximum devolution”, but then immediately complicates it by suggesting that a “no” vote would mean more devolution.

His calculation is simple, which is that he wants to soften the edges of a binary choice, but the effect in Scotland is to reinforce the belief that the London Prime Minister does not understand their country. Cameron will never be able to overcome that. It was bad enough for Blair. It is worse for a Conservative.

The SNP strategy is a long-term conspiracy out in the open. It is the slippery slope — the very thing about which the devolutionists were warned and of which they were scornful, in 1979 and in 1997 and all the years in between and since, until recently.

Thus Blair, who introduced devolution, ended up with an SNP minority administration in Edinburgh in May 2007, just before he stepped down; then a Tory government in London gave Salmond a majority in the Scottish Parliament last year. It was a majority for the SNP, not for independence, but we in the rest of the UK should not be too disdainful. We used to elect Labour governments that were formally committed to the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange.

At every point, English politicians and commentators have said that they did not think the next stage would happen. Every time, it did. Against that tilt, Cameron made the best speech he could last week.

Screen shot of BBC News live coverage of David Cameron’s Edinburgh speech on Friday, “United Kingdom is a previous thing”: thanks to Guido Fawkes

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  • RolftheGanger

    The real howler in Cameron’s speech was his ‘ Sir Alec Douglas-Home moment’

    Any politically aware Scot knows that the vague offer that a No vote will be rewarded with a vague ‘promise’ to ‘consider’ some ‘more powers’ for Holyrood.
    to quote Winnie Ewing:

    “In February 1979, just days before the devolution referendum, former
    Conservative Prime Minister Alec Douglas-Home told Scots that if they
    voted against the assembly then on offer, a future Tory Government would
    deliver a better scheme.  And we know fine what happened. 

    “Scotland actually did vote Yes – though not in sufficient numbers
    because of the infamous 40 per cent rule – but we didn’t get a
    parliament.  Instead, we got Margaret Thatcher – and 18 long years of a
    Tory government Scotland didn’t vote for.

     So Cameron has created a “put up or shut up” trap for himself.
    We expect he will shut up.
    He has exposed his ignorance of Scottish political history.
    He made the offer about 2.5 years too soon.
    There is no way such vagueness can be sustained for that length of time.
    the man is a balloon and his words are simply hot air.

    The gap between London and Scotland, is that only the Scottish press have picked up on the howler.

  • Firozali A.Mulla

    John I want to be Scottish, not Irish, I want to in EURO but not in England, I want to be in Wales but not in Amsterdam, I want I want I want We need peace, we need water
    we need education, we need medicines, we need separation from wives, we need
    all but you? What? Who are you? That is our life policy, or the leaders shape
    this. The question oh Syria? Oh . You mean the Arab spring. I though that song
    was sung. Was it?  Gunmen in Syria staged
    a guerrilla-style ambush that killed a senior state prosecutor and a judge
    Sunday in an attack that suggested armed factions are growing bolder and more
    coordinated in their uprising against President Bashar Assad’s
    regime. The roadway slayings — reported in an opposition-dominated northern
    region by the Syrian state news agency came a day after a deadly hit-and-run
    attack on a political figure in the heart of the pro-Assad city of Aleppo. But
    we, we are friends. Are we?  I thank you
    Firozali A.Mulla DBA

  • TheOnlyWayIsNorfolk

    Saor Alba.

  • Guest

    Although The Blessed Margaret was considered out of touch with ordinary people by just 27pc of Ipsos MORI poll respondents in 1978, that figure quickly rose after she won the general election of 1979.

    By the general election of 1983 she was considered out of touch with ordinary people by 49pc, exactly the same as David Cameron today. Just remind me how she did? That’s right, a landslide victory with a popular vote of over 13 million.

    Come the general election of 1987 she was considered out of touch with ordinary people by 53pc. Obviously heading for political oblivion, then? No, another landslide victory and another popular vote of over 13 million.

    TBM soldiered on until Sept 1990, at the time of which she was considered out of touch with ordinary people by 63pc. Definitely for the electoral chop in 1992 had she not been deposed in a palace coup? I would not have put good money on it.

    ‘Apart from being “out of touch with ordinary people” — not fatal but not great’ indeed. A positive advantage, it would appear.

  • greggf

    Scotland leaving the UK is similar, if not the same, as the UK (or its remnants) leaving the EU – it would need to be negotiated.
    Devolution within the UK is significantly different.
    Personally, I would vote for England to leave the UK.

  • Pacificweather

    Mr Rentoul! You excell yourself. A proper blog with well thought out ideas. You see, you can do it. Keep up the good work. I am going to be picky on one point. You said,

    “It was a majority for the SNP, not for independence, but we in the rest of the UK should not be too disdainful. We used to elect Labour governments that were formally committed to the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange.”

    The difference is that the SNP were elected by proportional representation and got a majority of the votes cast. The last UK party to get over 50% of the vote was the Conservatives in 1931.

  • Pacificweather

    How can you say Mrs T got a landslide victory when she didn’t even get the percentage of the votes as Ted Heath did in 1970 – ever.

    She got a smaller percentage of the vote in 1983 than she did in 1979, admittedly only 1.3% smaller.

  • ineluctable2u

    Indeed. He has rendered himself a hostage to fortune much as his role model Blair, when he announced his intention to quit so prematurely in advance. It is astonishing how often Cameron fails to learn from history. He seems to have the same need to perform in public as Blair and the same lack of canniness at rather crucial moments.

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