The Prime Minister is going to Scotland to debate the Union – and about time

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.


What about the Juncker vote then?

As ever in politics, there are several ways to look at a single event, depending on your point of view, and cynicism. Mr Cameron, First Lord of the Treasury, recently lost his battle to prevent Mr Juncker, the former Luxembourg Prime Minister, becoming President of the European Commission. Lost. Defeated. Humiliated.

But this need not be the case. If one squints, or looks at things with the aid of a mirror, one can see triumph. Mr Cameron sees triumph – or at the very least a victory for principle, integrity and determination. ‘My colleagues on the European Council know that I am deadly serious about EU reform,’ he said, ‘but I keep my word that, if I say I am not going to back down, I won’t.’

Since Mr Juncker is an arch-federalist (he is, isn’t he; that’s what we are told?), and the recent EU parliamentary elections have delivered a blow to the federalists, he deduces that what the Commission needs right now, like a hole in the head, is a federalist to prove the sceptics right: that the EU is not going to change course for anyone, least of all for the electorates of Europe.

Listen to the Labour Party leader and you will hear how Mr Cameron lost the vote 26 to 2 (which he did), how he and Britain are isolated in Europe and how this has been an ‘utter humiliation’, how he is pandering to the right-wing of his party, and how he is, by extension, the wrong person to be Prime Minister right now. The person most suited to the office of PM is, we must presume, Mr Miliband himself, despite the polls casting one or two doubts. According to a recent YouGov poll, 19 percent think he would make the best PM while 37 percent favour Cameron. But what sort of politician would he be without a certain degree of masochistic optimism?

I suppose this comes down to the key activity of politics – presentation. To Cameron this is, if not an outright success, a successful demonstration of his will to lead the EU in a direction more acceptable to its peoples; and to Miliband this is, of course, a failure. What is so utterly infuriating about the whole affair, and politics in general, is that there is an element of truth in both claims. Wouldn’t it be great if one could switch off one’s nuance receptors and see things only in black and white?

If Parliament is so important, why wasn’t that speech made in it?

David Cameron gives a good speech, I think most will agree. He spoke to his party conference without notes and established his leadership credentials, and he spoke again last time to quell the whispering campaign that might (although I think it unlikely) have brought his leadership to an end. Very few, if any, question his position now.

But yesterday’s speech on Britain’s place in Europe revealed something other than his ability to talk the talk. I’m not going into the meat of it here, but something struck me before he uttered even a word.

The location. The speech was apparently taking place in Bloomberg’s London office. No doubt this is a good venue, great even, and as a regional hub of an international news agency perhaps it makes a lot of sense given the international implications of his proposals. But it isn’t Parliament. You remember, that Gothic World Heritage Site beside the Thames from where we are notionally governed.

Then he got going and said something that seemed strange:

“It is national parliaments, which are, and will remain, the true source of real democratic legitimacy and accountability in the EU.”

Really? Then why not deliver this most important of speeches to one of those parliaments – ours as it happens – in recognition of that legitimacy and to emphasise its democratic importance above that of the EU? The whole point of this passage was to propose ‘a bigger and more significant role for national parliaments.’

One can’t help thinking that parliament is not, in the minds of most politicians, the institution that matters most. Rather it is the Newsnight studio, the Today Programme sound-booth or something similar that is most important to a politician with a point to make.


“It is to the British Parliament that I must account on the EU budget negotiations, or on the safeguarding of our place in the single market.”

But not, apparently, when announcing the most important policy declaration on the UK’s place in that very same club. On the face of it, this is immeasurably important, because what the PM is proposing is a referendum that could well see us out of it. And if not out of it then under membership rules radically different to the ones we live under today – assuming the apparatus is amenable.

“Those are the Parliaments which instil proper respect – even fear – into national leaders. We need to recognise that in the way the EU does business.”

A great opportunity, then, to demonstrate the point by making the speech in Westminster. Or perhaps I’m being picky? Why not announce policy to the media instead of Parliament? It’s such common practice now, it would seem odd and strangely antiquated to make important announcements like this one in good old Westminster.

Still, had it not been for the Algerian hostage crisis, the speech might have been made in Amsterdam. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with making speeches outside Parliament, or even outside the country, but when the main antagonism is about national parliaments – and therefore democracy, accountability and legitimacy – being hollowed out by the EU bureaucracy, then one begins to wonder just what politicians really think about Parliament.

Do national leaders really fear democracy? Is that why they ignore its parliamentary houses? Or is it simply boring, or just inconvenient? I don’t really know, but whatever the EU project is about, it’s not about democracy. And that’s the primary problem. Parliament is where the demos gathers in the form of elected representatives and, if we ignore that demos or undermine it or marginalise it, then we should not be surprised if, in the end, the public comes to resent those people and external institutions that seem to stand against them.

Perhaps it really doesn’t mean a thing, but why was that speech, with its potentially seismic policy pronouncement, not made in Westminster to our democratically elected representatives?