Cameron's world: Peril and opportunity for the Union

Cameron needs to understand that his second term is about preserving the Union. This requires a total re-think on strategy. In their hearts and minds, most Scots want the Union to prevail. Cameron needs to get clever, and ignore opportunistic Tories just as much as the neo-authoritarian SNP

David-cameron-in-scotland
Dave: Did you preside to end the Union?
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Tom Gallagher
On 12 May 2015 11:58

Successful political leaders are ones ready to listen to advice that may lead them to re-think their basic assumptions. With the only party challenge to the electorally victorious Conservatives coming from the SNP, triumphant in Scotland, perhaps David Cameron needs to consider anew his approach to Scotland.

He should remember that independence did not figure as an issue in the general election fought there. On a high turnout, the SNP was endorsed by 35 percent of the Scottish electorate. It won over many new voters by claiming that Scottish influence at Westminster and left-leaning policies could be secured by backing it.

Conservatives who afterwards spoke on the media, such as Francis Maude on BBC Question time, gave the impression that  thunderous roars were being delivered from belligerent Scottish lions, and politics would never be the same again.

This could turn out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy if the UK victors respond to the SNP’s success with panic, complacency, half-baked measures or empty posturing.

It is imperative that the UK government does not get embroiled in horse-trading around constitutional issues. This is the kind of theatre that has completely absorbed the SNP for years. They are good at it, and know how to manipulate the emotions of a segment of Scots by claiming that they are misunderstood, overlooked, taken for granted, or betrayed.

The efficiency of the government of Britain needs to improve --  in Scotland no less than elsewhere. Any major constitutional change should be British-wide and should be tackled with care and deliberation. It should not focus around the London-Edinburgh axis but should be extended right across the UK.

The objective should be to improve efficiency and representation and not to pander to ethnic grievances as articulated by territorial elites like the SNP (whose capacity for complaint is limitless).

The new government needs to avoid the floor of the House of Commons being the scene of set-piece battles between some of its own English-minded backbenchers and militant SNP MPs dragooned by a role-seeking Alex Salmond.

Such scenes could promote division and polarisation beyond its walls. Perhaps one useful way of avoiding them is to elect a new Speaker who doesn’t manipulate Parliament for his own impish glory but who, instead, upholds parliamentary government during a stressful time. 

The government needs to stand up for Unionists in Scotland who have faced harassment and vilification as candidates and campaigners in this election, and also the referendum.

Solidarity needs to be shown to British-minded Scots and those millions of people whose family and other connections span Hadrians Wall. They will be casualties of any bitter territorial split just as their counterparts in Ireland (in far fewer numbers) were a century ago.

Making apt parallels with Ireland is not reckless but prudent because the emotions which have been stoked among sections of the Scottish population are just as intense now as in Ireland then.

In a few media post-mortems, some Tories have made spurious common ground with the SNP by agreeing about the dreadful quality of Labour politics and past rule in Scotland. A dark legend is in danger of being born here.

There is no huge contrast between the quality of Labour and SNP rule in the devolution era; indeed, Labour arguably paid more attention to governing than the SNP and the poor state of education and health after seven years of SNP rule rather bears  this out.

Labour lost power in 2007, in no small way, due to weak electoral organization and the burden of defending some deeply unpopular policies of Tony Blair’s premiership. The 1999-2007 coalition between Labour and the Liberal Democrats was a model of restrained and plural government compared with the autocratic and restrictive nature of SNP rule.

Cameron’s government also needs to be robust in challenging the demonization of its party members in Scotland. It’s a  practice initiated by  Labour which has been extended to it by the SNP.

"Compare and contrast", should be the challenge extended to Scots filing behind an SNP with no steady or coherent policies for government beyond ones which deepen the gulf with the rest of the UK and encourage a sense of grudge and grievance among volatile voting groups.

Nicola Sturgeon should be politely but firmly told that it is now time to govern in partnership with the rest of the UK. A verdict on that relationship was delivered in the 2014 referendum. The SNP’s own 2013 White paper said it was a once-in-a-generation event.

Even if independence and a second  referendum are contained  in the SNP’s manifesto for the 2016 Scottish elections, it changes nothing. The UK parliament is sovereign in that matter.

Unless the SNP’s English opponents wish to open up years of chaos and bitterness through dismembering a 300-year-union, zero encouragement that a second referendum can occur any time soon, should be offered.

David Cameron should set a good example to the SNP by trying hard to to reduce the disconnect in the UK between the political class and large swathes of the population. This will involve junking niche policies that only interest or benefit unrepresentative groups absorbed in the political bubble.

Much energy needs to be directed into improving a low grade public administration and a police organization which was ceasing  to be a ‘service’ even before it  ignored  an epidemic of  child abuse cases from Oxford to Sheffield.

Fixing broken government in England will be noticed and appreciated in Scotland because the SNP currently plans to repeat the politically correct excesses that have previously scarred  parts of England.

If a second term for Cameron is to be a long-goodbye equivalent to the one associated with Barack Obama in the USA,  it will be a tragedy for his reputation and for Britain’s ability to survive as a coherent and successful island state.

He should ponder the lessons of predecessors who messed up the admittedly far more formidable challenge of reconciling Ireland by short-term or partisan policies.

Even senior members of his own party were dismayed by the  cynical strategy of ‘bigging up’ the SNP during the electoral campaign in order to accomplish a return to power.

From now on, all major UK parties need to put their own partisan interests aside if indulging them puts at risk the survival of the United Kingdom.

Those who have the foresight to see how the partition of Britain would make the Scottish Question a hugely disruptive one in politics in the rest of the UK for many years ahead, need to think hard about the best way to consolidate the Union.

It is a time of peril but also of opportunity.  Measures need to be taken to support the majority of people in Scotland who reject the SNP and its obsession with sour identity politics.

The Conservatives need to raise their game so as to avoid being ambushed by the SNP which may involve the launching of a new centre-right party in Scotland. Tory MPs should monitor Cameron’s approach to Scotland just as rigorously as they do his stance on the EU.

Above all, cross-party warfare needs to be shelved whenever cooperation can clearly help to keep our country together.

Professor Tom Gallagher is currently writing Scotland at the Crossroads: A Nation Divides

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