The Week

In Jura, Cameron has time to contemplate the emerging SNP-Tory alliance

Fraser Nelson reviews the week in politics

19 August 2009

For the first time since being elected party leader, David Cameron returned to his old holiday retreat of Jura last weekend. His father-in-law, Viscount Astor, owns an estate on the island which has some of the best deer-stalking terrain in Scotland. Although Mr Cameron is an accomplished shot, he did not join in this time — perhaps mindful of how photographs of him in tweeds and with a shotgun would go down on the urban election trail. He restricted himself instead to swimming, fishing and contemplating the battle ahead.

This time next year, Mr Cameron will probably be the Prime Minister of Scotland — a title which is bolted on to the English job. Tony Blair tended to skirt around this, and behaved as if devolution had relieved him of having to think about life north of Newcastle. The network of feuds, grudges and grandstanding which comprises Scottish politics is something most in Westminster could happily live without. But Mr Cameron has no Gordon Brown figure to hand all this over to. He will have to deal with the Scots himself.

The last week has shown what he is up against. Alex Salmond’s nationalist administration in Edinburgh has yet again succeeded in achieving one of its main goals: getting people’s attention. It has done so thanks to the spectacularly inept handling of the case of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, who, just eight years ago, was found guilty of 270 counts of murder in the Lockerbie bombings and has been diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer. It is a political football that the SNP could not resist giving a kick.

It is hard to argue a medical case for Megrahi’s release, given that cancer treatment in Tripoli is immeasurably worse than in Scotland. Given the weight of the evidence against him, it is difficult to see why he should be freed when so many terminally ill prisoners are not. Given that most of his victims were American, it is also hard to disregard Washington’s robust view (personally conveyed by Hillary Clinton) that he should serve his 27-year sentence. But as Mr Cameron is likely to find out, the SNP plays politics in a very different way.

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Mr Salmond’s goal is fairly simple: to win a referendum on independence, should one ever be held. To soften public opinion ahead of this, the SNP’s strategy is to behave as if Scotland is already independent. This means persuading the national press to refer to the administration as the ‘Scottish government’ and accruing various trappings of a nation state. The SNP’s agenda is all about posturing — whether it is sending aid to Malawi or opening Scottish embassies in Beijing.

Mr Salmond’s mission is being made progressively easier by Whitehall’s lack of resistance. In the early days of devolution, any reference to a Scottish ‘government’ was met with fury from Westminster. Now, Whitehall seems not to care any more. Jim Murphy, the Scotland Secretary, repeatedly warns his civil servants that they are unwittingly colluding in Mr Salmond’s agenda whenever they co-operate with wheezes like a Scottish International Development strategy. He is normally met with looks of disinterest or bafflement.

At the top level, Mr Salmond is regularly thwarted. In his private meetings with Mr Brown the First Minister is regularly amazed (and dismayed) by the Prime Minister’s grasp of detail over gas regulation, or the finer points of regional funding formulae. Mr Brown can instantly spot a nationalist trick. Number 10 has been careful to say almost nothing about the Megrahi case, for example, so as to deny Mr Salmond the chance of blowing this up into a spat with Whitehall. As Scottish Labour know from experience, fighting the SNP means knowing when not to engage.

There is a noticeable deficit of such wisdom and knowledge on the Conservative benches, which include only one MP from Scotland (David Mundell). There are plenty of Scots around Mr Cameron, but they tend to be political refugees nestled in safe English seats. When Mr Salmond found himself sitting next to George Osborne on a flight from London to Edinburgh he was delighted to be asked his advice on how the Scottish Conservatives could best improve their chances. The First Minister had a ready answer: stop defending the Union with England and start becoming a little more sympathetic to Scottish nationalism.

This is precisely what the Tories in the Scottish Parliament have been doing — most notably in the welcome Annabel Goldie, their leader, extended to the report of the Calman Commission which calls for the further transfer of powers to Edinburgh. In Westminster, the few Tories who retain a vague interest in Scotland mutter darkly about the ‘Vichy Tories’ in Holyrood. But they are outnumbered by Tory MPs who jokingly refer to the SNP as the ‘Cameron highlanders’, seeing them as political mercenaries fighting Labour in its Celtic homeland.

Given this fledgling alliance, a Tory victory in the general election would bring Mr Salmond a chance to achieve a long-standing nationalist goal: financial independence. For some time, nationalists in Westminster have been quietly cultivating Tories who are known to resent the level of subsidy sent to Scotland (public spending per head is still 24 per cent higher than south of the border). They propose a new settlement. Why not set Scotland’s budget at whatever Scotland raises in tax? This is, after all, how the Basque country deals with Spain. Several Tories, including many on the front bench, are interested.

What is unusual about the growing Tory–SNP axis is that each side thinks they are fooling the other. Mr Salmond argues that, by exploiting the Little Englander side to the Tory party, he can take Scotland nine tenths of the way to independence. The Tories who support fiscal autonomy see a rare chance of getting rid of the cost of Scotland and being thanked for it — by a First Minister who is deluded enough to think that he would win from such a deal.

Absent from this is talk about defending the Union. When asked, Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne both say they strenuously support it — but if gossip in the bars of the Commons is any indicator, Tory support for the Union is draining. According to a recent survey of Tory candidates, 46 per cent say they would not be ‘uncomfortable about Scotland becoming independent’. It is all too clear that the SNP will use every tool at their disposal to undermine the Union. The question is whether a Conservative government will have the motivation or energy to fight back.

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Show comments
  • Ken Stevens

    Whether Scotland becomes independent is a matter for Scotland alone. I am relaxed about and would respect such a decision by its people. Perhaps better to be good neighbours than continuing to be grumpy bedfellows.

    What is not a matter for Scotland alone is the terms under which it stays in Union. Mr Cameron and others (of various political persuasions) are so focused on maintaining and enhancing Scotland’s position in the Union that they are ignoring the adverse impact on opinion in England. They fawn on, mollify and groom Scotland whilst deriding similar national pride down here as Little Englanderism.

    Polls have consistently indicated a majority in favour of an English Parliament. Short of dismantling the current nation-based devolution (England not being regarded as a nation in this context)and returning to a single UK central government, the only practicable salvation for the Union is by re-establishment of England’s Parliament. That must be the full monty, not fudges like English Pauses for English Clauses.

    If such a solution would be unpalatable to the Celtic fringes because of England’s disproportionate size, then tough. I’m not prepared to suppress my nationhood just to nurture yours. If you don’t like it but don’t want independence, then campaign for achieving a single nationhood of UK.

    Take just one example of current governmental attitude:
    The Brit contingent on The British-Irish Council consists of representation from the UK government, the devolved administrations, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man.

    Spot the missing component.

    And I note that the splendid Annabel Goldie is leader of the Scottish Conservative Party. Would Mr Nelson please remind me of who is the leader of the English Conservative Party?

    In most respects I would be an instinctive Tory voter (I am such on local elections). At national level I will not vote for any party that doesn’t offer a proper solution to the English Question. I don’t care if the voting pattern of sufficient others of like mind risks prejudicing the prospects of a Tory majority at a General Election. It’s not as though there are clear distinctions in general philosophy between the main parties. The only issue is the sheer paucity of talent amongst the personalities in the current administration – but what assurance can I have that the personalities-in-waiting will be any more competent when faced with the practical realities of government?

    Where is England’s counterpart to the admirable Mr Salmond, the only politician with a proactive concept of what he is trying to achieve, as compared with the reactive, dog-in-a-manger attitudes of mainstream UK politicians?

    (Oh, and the same sorts of considerations apply to the other devolved bits of the DisUnited Kingdom, though I’ll allow that the situation of Norn Ireland is a little less straightforward.)

  • Hawkeye

    All that needs to be done is to ensure that MPs can only vote on matters affecting their own constituency. That way Scottish matters are dealt with by scots, English matters by english MPs etc and national issues by all MPs

    Do it that way and you can scrap the scottish and welsh assemblies and forget the need for an english one as well.

    If Scotland wants to go independent then let it. It will destroy Labour forever and there would be a certain justice in it being destroyed by the process it created to keep it in power forever.

  • I Albion

    Mr. Cameron has told us ,he does not want to be Prime Minister of “just England”,so if the English get their own Parliament…..we will have to have a new Prime Minister.

  • Ken Stevens

    I Albion

    By definition a newly reconstituted parliament would have a new prime or first minister of England.

    That wouldn’t inhibit Mr C from being overall prime minister of UK

    …Or how about the UKIP proposal of only one set of MPs, spending part of the time in their national forums and other times sitting together as UK parliament? That would enable elimination of the extra layer of politicians created by current part-devolution.

    Even under existing arrangements, why an earth are there still Scottish and Welsh Offices in UK government?

  • Peter Fullerton

    If he’s stalking deer with a shotgun, he is probably not a very accomplished shot?

  • Ben Moss

    If the Scotts are stupid enough to go it alone……?

    Well they are adults and entitled to make their own mistakes

  • Jerry

    “When asked, Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne both say they strenuously support it — but if gossip in the bars of the Commons is any indicator, Tory support for the Union is draining”

    Thank you for saying that. Sometimes we English get a little disheartened with the seemingly implacable propaganda wall put up by the British.
    Its good to know that after years of going on about it, the mortar is falling away despite appearances.
    Bricks next!

    After all the USSR seemed implacably strong until very soon before it evaporated.

    Hears to a return to a Union of the Crowns!!!- a theme that Salmond has not fully developed yet but which I suspect will generate real interest both south and north of the border once it is more widely understood.

  • Grahame

    Speaking as an ex-pat British Conservative born in England and formerly a staunch supporter of the Union, I have, since devolution in the 90s, become less and less concerned about the continuance of the United Kingdom.

    Part of that comes from being exposed to the extreme nationalism of the self-labelled “Celtic” nations in my current residence of New York (since 1996). It seems from this perspective that the devolved “governments” are quite happy to scrounge as much money as they can while complaining about how perfidious Albion still remains.

    Another part of it is seeing devolved Parliaments and Assemblies voting benefits for their own constituents (free prescriptions, no tuition fees, continuance of grammer schools, as a few examples) while using their votes in the British Parliament to deny the same to those in England.

    The idean of an English Parliament is, in my opinion, a complete non-starter and dangerous to England itself. After all, those who advocate constitutional reform often advocate the division of the English Kingdom into “regions” and many contemporary progressive historians keep selling the myth that there is no united English nation. England, for that matter, already has a perfectly good Parliament… It can be found in Westminster, which was the seat of the English Parliament before the first Act of Union.

    So, again in my opinion, let Scotland gave its independence. Get rid of the money pit we call Northern Ireland and allow its union with the Irish Republic If Wales really wants to leave, so be it, though that would be the one constituent part of the UK that I would be the most sad to are leave.

    Of course, one aspect of these discussions that I have rarely seen anyone within the press mention is the constitutional convention of the Commonwealth that would have to agree to the breakup of the UK. The former Dominions and colonies after all, have to agree to any proposed settlement

  • Karly

    I’m a Tory and I’m 27 years old and I think the end of the Union is nigh and quite honestly it does not bother me in the slightest. We can be the United Kingdom of England Wales and Northern Ireland. We don’t need Scotland. And the big pull is it is in the interests of the Tory party for Scotland to go alone. Labour cannot possibly be an electoral force in England without it’s bedrock of support in Scotland. Labour are always trying to dream up ways of finishing the Tories it’s high time we started being as ruthless for our own sake.

  • Ellen

    The Union must go. It was one of Labour’s main Alinsky-like tactics to gain support in Scotland by aligning itself with nationalism.

    But because Labour never thinks these things through, an independent Scotland will only add to Labour’s demise.

    Labour wanted it. Let Labour have it. Give them enough rope and sever the union!

  • JohnMcDonald

    Did you ever walk into a party and realise you had made a big mistake? Once did that where most of the guests were clinical psychologists.

    Reading Nelson and most of the nutty comments here have made me put down my drink and quickly leave.

    Think I should stay north of the border.

  • Andy from Argyll

    The Tories will win the next UK election. We Scots can therefore do what we did in ’79, – vote Labour – and get nothing, or vote SNP and get a party who puts our interests first.
    I know what I’m doing.

  • DougtheDug

    “In his private meetings with Mr Brown the First Minister is regularly amazed (and dismayed) by the Prime Ministers grasp of detail over gas regulation, or the finer points of regional funding formulae.”

    On reading this gem I had the uneasy feeling that the whole art had been lifted directly from Viz.

  • Nobby

    One of Fraser Nelson’s weaker articles. But it is August.

  • English Mike

    I would not worry about the SNP, I would give them their complete independance, their own Scottish Passports, their own Scottish health service, their own Scottish parliament, all funded by the Scottish taxpayers. Close the border into England and Wales. Then issue short term visa’s should they want to pop over to England for the odd week.
    I would not mention Zimbabwe, South Africa etc, just let them get on with it.

  • Peter Fullerton

    If Mr Cameron were to believe it proper to go stalking deer with a shotgun, he is probably wiser to restrict himself to swimming and fishing. It does make one wonder though if he is properly arming himself for the battle ahead.

  • davep

    People talk about independence for Scotland but what about independence for England. We have had years to put up with these Scottish socialists who regard England as a an extension of Clydeside. Brown and most of his ghastly crew will be foreigners. Bring it on.

  • Wilfred

    The message that comes across from your article, Fraser, is that the Tories will do anything, even assist the SNP to break up the Union, to achieve power.

    The Union of our kingdoms was once a core belief of British conservatism.

    How carelessly the Notting Hill set will toss our historic nation into the trash heap of history, in order to secure a few measly years of power.

  • Brian Innes-Will, Melbourne Australia

    Fraser’s ‘analysis’ is risible, a bit like a Soviet era Pravda reporter making points such as:
    The Polish/read Scots leader machinations are devious but we nomenklatura will outwit them.
    These pitiful little would be independent countries are too wee, too stupid, too uneconomic to survive without our ever-loving, benevolent ‘care’.
    They are just uppity provincials, not up to Union-level politics.
    One Union’s ideological structure fell apart, the ‘British’ read English ’empihah’of the British Isles is visibly disintegrating – parliament corrupt, civil order diintegrating, immigration out of control, defence mismanaged, finance system a mess, economy based on – what? Rotten to the core and visibly disintegrating. Scotland is small enough to reform, regroup, re-position itself and flourish. England will have a much bigger struggle. Best get on with it!

  • Hereford

    John and Andy: Oh yes please! Please Do!

  • terence patrick hewett

    Anything, anything; just stop this Caledonian whining.

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