We hear that David Cameron is off to Scotland tomorrow with Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg. The panic is on. But why has the Prime Minister stayed so aloof from the debate on Scottish independence? He is the Queen’s lead advisor and the head of her government – that is the government of the United Kingdom, of which Scotland is an integral part. Yet he has seen fit to play almost no part in the debate over whether his, our and Her Majesty’s country should be split in half by Scottish separatists. Why?
The answer is actually quite simple, and depressing. He has hitherto been concerned that his posh accent and his southern Tory identity will convince voters to vote ‘Yes!’ even before he’s got his point across. In a way this is understandable; a certain strand of Scottish nationalism has long fed and sustained itself on anti-English and anti-Tory prejudice. It has been a crude calculation, but Cameron has taken the view that it is better to stay away and hope the Scots see sense. It is ironic that this aloofness compounds the stereotype of remote and privileged Englishmen who don’t care one jot for the Scots. They just assume, yah… But he does care, very much.
This is depressing for a number of reasons. The decision not to enter the debate has smacked too much of moral cowardice. That’s a strong charge, and perhaps unjustified, but politics is about ideas and the willingness to get stuck in and argue for those ideas. That cannot be done if you are not prepared to enter the debate and risk the eggs. Scottish Labour MP Jim Murphy seems to have no such qualms, even when subjected to serious abuse from the more chauvinistic wing of Scottish nationalism.
It is madness to think people will see the sense in your political manifesto if you are not even prepared to tell them what it is; yet that has been the Prime Minister’s approach. You can see why the strategy meetings concluded this the right way to win the referendum, but the polls are suggesting there is a void that Labour politicians cannot fill by themselves.
It is also depressing because it has left the field open for the Labourites (Liberal Democrats seemed as uninterested as the Conservatives). This is a problem because they are not the solution; they are a significant part of the problem with the Union today. It is Labour anti-Tory rhetoric of the most shameless kind that did much to stoke Scottish resentment and a belief that there is something especially vile about conservatism – but it’s all been politics.
Labour and anti-Tory politics entrenched the myth that the Poll Tax was ‘tested’ on the Scots as if they were mere lab rats. But the real reason was in fact born from a wish to ease the burden of a particularly punitive rate re-evaluation in Scotland. What’s more, Margaret Thatcher only did this because of strong argument from Scottish ministers. But the lab-rat narrative suited Labour’s wish to denigrate their political opponents. Spinning a line was not invented by Blair.
The central problem with left-wing politicians leading the Unionist campaign is that they define their politics largely through anti-British attitudes and measures. They are wedded to the nation-dismantling EU. They wallow in the ‘crimes’ of British history and do their best to link them to Tory politics. They support levels of mass immigration which dilute British cultural cohesion. All these things undermine the very concept of Britishness, so when the Scottish Nationalists come along and say they want an independent Scotland, the counter narrative of British identity no longer seems that appealing, perhaps even irrelevant.
But really! If Conservatives are not prepared to roll their sleeves up and argue the passionate case for the Union of these islands, then it is difficult to see how this can end well. Even if the ‘Yes!’ vote fails to cross the line this time, Salmond and his crew will immediately set their sights on the next vote. Perhaps not for five or ten years, but it will be their lodestar. And they will continue to attack the very concept of Britishness; it will be like a festering sore. Maybe, just maybe David Cameron does understand this. We shall see from his visit tomorrow.