David Cameron’s speech in Scotland today is important for a couple of reasons. The first and most obvious is that he is clearly deeply committed to the unionist cause. It isn’t simply that he fears being the prime minister who presides over the break-up of the United Kingdom. He clearly feels personally very strongly about the union. That is what civil servants who work closely with him report.
Journalists can always find backbenchers or ministers to make glib off-the-record comments about ‘letting Scotland go’, but it is fanciful to believe that Cameron would allow the Conservative party to put its partisan advantage ahead of the union. Moreover, it is not obvious that the Conservative political interest is best served by separation. That claim usually rests on the belief that if there were no Scottish Labour MPs sent to Westminster then the Conservatives would stand a much better chance of winning general elections. Now it is true that the Conservatives would have secured a majority in 2010 had Scotland not returned so many Labour MPs. But elections in which Scottish MPs are decisive are relatively rare.
In a forthcoming IPPR report on the West Lothian question, constitutional expert Jim Gallagher argues:
‘In the period of 60 years from the end of the second world war up to 2005, there were three elections out of 15 where the territorial distribution of the vote meant that a Conservative-voting England was run by a Labour UK government. All occurred when English opinion was evenly split, and in two of them Labour’s majority depended on Scottish members. They were:
- 1950–51, when England was exactly evenly split and Labour’s strong showing in Wales gave it a UK majority. This government had only a small overall majority and lasted only a year.
- 1964–66, when the Conservatives had a majority in England but Labour’s Scottish and Welsh strength (barely) overturned that majority at a UK level. Had there been a Scottish parliament at this point then a West Lothian question would have arisen.
- From February to October 1974 the position was similar. Labour was the largest UK party and formed a minority UK government, but the Conservatives had an overall majority in England. This too was short-lived and in the October election Labour improved their position to become the largest party in England, with a very small UK majority.
‘The Labour governments of 1945–50, 1997–2001, 2001–2005 and 2005–10 all had overall English as well as UK majorities. In all of the elections until 2005, there were 71 or 72 Scottish seats but, despite that, there were only two periods, totalling two-and-a-half years, when Labour in government was not the largest party in England: 1964–66 and February–October 1974.’
Conservatives who learn towards English nationalism are on stronger ground when they point to a rising tide of English cultural and political identity which expresses itself (in part) in hostility to the existing devolution settlement. This is likely to demand a reshaping of the union, both within England (which remains highly centralised) and at Westminster. But so far from being a threat, this is an opportunity. If offers the prospect of a progressive evolution of the union in which Scotland gains more power and responsibility, through so-called ‘devo-max’, while English political identity finds expression in new forms, probably through devolved government to its cities and counties coupled with reform of the Westminster parliament.
And this brings me to the second reason why Cameron’s speech today was important. By making a positive case for the union, Cameron signalled that all of the unionist parties will now fight the independence referendum on the basis of the strength of the United Kingdom and its potential, rather than through a negative campaign about how a weak, powerless and vulnerable Scotland couldn’t go it alone. Some Conservatives want simply to repeat the tactics that enabled them to destroy the Yes campaign in last year’s AV referendum, but wiser counsel has prevailed. Talking down to the Scottish people will not work. It would alienate Scottish voters and leave Alex Salmond as the sole repository of all the optimism and hope for Scotland’s future (just as he was in last year’s Scottish parliament elections).
But here’s the rub: it is very hard to make a positive case for the future of the union on the basis of the status quo. That is why Cameron was right today to hold out the prospect of a further devolution of power after the referendum. Without that, he has no ‘forward offer’, as political strategists use the term. Indeed, that is why the speech itself fell flat in parts and often tipped back into an account of what Scotland would lose if it voted for independence – security, strength and solidarity.
Only when the unionist parties coalesce around a vision for devo-max will that alternative future for Scotland be available to them. It doesn’t mean that devo-max needs to be on the referendum ballot. But the tools it gives to Scotland – more responsibility for its own taxation and spending and more economic power – need to be in the unionist armoury. Labour and the Liberal Democrats have, in their own ways, already gotten to this point. Now Cameron has too. They’ll soon need to start spelling out exactly what they mean.