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Thursday, 19 January 2012

Cameron is the biggest threat to the Union

Last week, the first shots were fired in the auldest battle - the battle for Scottish independence. With the SNP prevaricating over when it will hold its long promised referendum, David Cameron blundered in to tell Alex Salmond that Westminster would grant Holyrood the power to do so.  But the referendum would need to be held before 2013.  And, our English Prime Minister told the Scottish First Minister, he would prefer one question: Yes or No to independence.

This is an issue where there is quite a lot of process, much of it very legal and technical.  But it's clear enough that only the Westminster parliament can create and devolve the powers that would allow a referendum to happen.  But simply because that legal power resides in Westminster, doesn't mean that Westminster should dictate or excessively influence the timing and question put to the Scottish people. 

David Cameron's intervention was clumsy and cack-handed.  Cameron's refrain on the process is that Salmond is delaying the referendum for which he has spent his political life fighting, because he knows that if it were held any time soon he would lose it.  Support for outright independence is hovering around 35%.  But the reverse of Cameron's argument is also true, Cameron wants to have it now because he fears that Salmond might win it when the UK's Conservative led government - a party with minimal representation in Scotland of any kind - is desperately unpopular in 2014.

This focus on the process, and the impression Cameron has given of trying to fix the timing and question to be favourable to his Unionist stance, is itself a great threat to the Union.  Priority number one for the Unionist campaign must be to reverse (it's too late to avoid it now) any impression that England is fixing the referendum. 

Why?  Because this plays straight into Alex Salmond's hands.  When it comes to the substance of the debate, things like what currency Scotland will have (the euro as a new EU member state? Sounds unpopular), how much its public debt would be, the sustainability of its economy, its independent status in relation to armed forces and monarchy, are these the economic times to being going solo? On the real arguments, Salmond is much quieter.  Much better for him to play on emotions, on perceptions of English interference and dominance.

So Cameron should let go.  Have the discussions on process quietly and with a default position of letting the SNP take full responsibility for its timing and the question (including the option of "devolution plus" for which nearly 68% are thought to be supportive).  Don't let the SNP have any cause to rest their arguments on perceptions of unfairness.  Have the confidence to hold the referendum in 2014 and to unite across Unionist parties to make the arguments.  Let Scots lead the debate, Cameron and Osborne should take a back seat - let credible figures like Rifkind, Falconer, Darling, Kennedy, Campbell - even Gordon Brown - lead it.

He blundered in last week, but the PM is the biggest threat to the Union because of those tactics but also because he leads a distinctly English party.  The debate needs to be beyond parties, involving figures from outside politics completely.

It is a campaign that can be won - now and in 2014.  But the tactics must change.

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