The general election is just two weeks away. Will Scotland return a record number of SNP MPs to Westminster and what would that mean for the rest of the UK and the other political parties? As the Scottish campaign enters its final phase it feels in many ways to be a rerun of last year’s referendum. Jackie Kemp considers the performance of the Prime Minister who almost lost the Union and asks if he is really up to the job.
A major part of the Conservative’s election campaign has been to question whether Ed Miliband is up to the job. But what about David Cameron?
He is already the Prime Minister who almost lost the Union, and he is not being all that careful with it now as he sows the wind of Scottish Nationalism in an attempt to frighten English voters.
Looking back, the careless flourish with which he signed off on a referendum with Alex Salmond in 2012 looks at best naive, at worst complacent. With hindsight, Cameron’s decision to fly to Scotland to sign it handed a great publicity opportunity to the Nationalists.
Salmond’s officials immediately dubbed it ‘The Edinburgh Agreement’ and photographs of the two men shaking hands outside St Andrew House made it look like a formal concord between governments. Salmond was allowed to choose the long run up, the exact date. The wording on the ballot paper: ‘ Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?’ also played to the Nationalist cause.
We know the arguments well: a statement disguised as a question; the SNP got the sexy answer ‘Yes’ while the pro-Union lobby were the dour nay-sayers. Hardly surprising they were accused of negativity.
Back then, Cameron didn’t appear to take the referendum terribly seriously. Despite warnings from some, he appeared to brush the whole thing aside with easy insouciance, like a schoolboy handed a challenging homework assignment not due until after the summer hols. Leaving it to the last minute and then winging it may be Cameron’s default setting.
The Scottish Nationalists however proceeded to build a massive grassroots campaign. Blair McDougall of the No Campaign famously said: “You don’t win elections by sitting on bean bags reciting poetry”, but the Yes movement with its wishing trees, rock concerts and pop-up shops gave people who felt abandoned in the post-industrial wilderness a sense that they belonged, that they mattered, that they could create a better future. At times more like a religious movement than a political campaign, independence promised much and opponents who argued that it was promising much more than it could ever deliver were greeted like cold rain at a summer barbecue.
A time of democratic engagement for some, it became a bloody and exhausting battle for others. In the end, the battle for the union was fought and won largely by the Scottish Labour party. But they expended so much political capital on fighting for the Union, they may take a generation to recover.
It was always a hazard of taking the brunt of the campaign – that by standing shoulder to shoulder with the Conservatives and defending the status quo, Scottish Labour would be perceived as apologists and foot-soldiers for David Cameron and George Osborne.
In the early days of the campaign, if you had been sticking pins into a map of Scotland to follow Alistair Darling’s progress up and down the country you would have had needed reinforcements. Later he was joined by Jim Murphy with his Irn bru crate and there were many other stalwarts such as Margaret Curran. At the eleventh hour, Gordon Brown gave the speech of his life, when he conjured up the ghosts of the early Labour movement; of the men and women who built the health service; of the troops who fought together in two world wars; and called them all to the No standard.
In the end of course, the ‘Nos’ carried it, 55% to 45%. But it was close, much, much too close for comfort. In Alex Salmond’s memoir of the referendum “The Dream Shall Never Die’, jokingly referred to in some quarters as ‘Mein Bamf” after his Aberdeenshire constituency, he recalls the morning after the vote.
Salmond saw David Cameron come on and give a “silly, arrogant” speech, in which he announced he now wanted English Votes for English Laws (EVEL). Although Salmond said his team were too exhausted to realise “the door Cameron has just opened”, he thought: “I understand – no, I sense – what now must be done.”
That was the moment that defined Cameron’s premiership. Instead of reaching out to disappointed Yes voters, he chose to strike a short term party political note and stab Labour in the back. It was not the speech of a Prime Minister who was putting the country first. Is Cameron really up to the job?