Cameron’s Three Mistakes

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By Gavin Falconer

If the people of Scotland opt for independence in the course of the next few years, historians will debate the causes behind it, ranging from the decline of the British Empire to the rise of the EU and NATO. On a rhetorical level, much of the blame is likely to be directed at Margaret Thatcher for her role in the industrial shakeout of the 1980s, but some may also attach to the Labour politicians who preceded her in an era during which much of Scotland’s industry was taken out of local hands without giving the country the requisite political competence to engage in its own central planning.

The UK Prime Minister who has overseen the most spectacular growth in support for an independent Scotland, however, is David Cameron. As I hope to show here, Cameron made several major errors that now threaten to bring about a result he claims to dread.

The first such mistake was his refusal to allow a second question in the independence referendum. That decision was made on the bad advice of colleagues and the misleading snapshot of public opinion provided by pollsters. Those who knew Scotland rather better would have been able to predict that the Yes vote would be much higher than the third or so of support that the option attracted immediately prior to the campaign. Put bluntly, such campaigns develop a dynamic of their own, drawing on deep, pre-existing reserves of national identity whereby perceived departures from the rules of fair play in politics and the media are likely to be taken as attacks on the nation — a phenomenon also highly likely to occur in Northern Ireland when, as demographers predict, nationalist parties achieve a majority in its Assembly and call a referendum there.

Cameron’s choice was no doubt informed by an inkling that devo max would lead to more rather than less support for independence and a hard-headed desire to keep oil-based fiscal transfers flowing to Westminster. As we now know, however, he failed in this ambition to put the nationalist genie back in the bottle. Although he got the binary result that he wanted, the figures were much closer than he had originally envisaged. Had he instead supported a question on devo max, which would easily have carried the day, he could have included conditions assuring Trident’s place in Scotland, limiting in law how quickly a second independence referendum could be held (in Northern Ireland it is seven years), and setting the controversial sea border in stone for as long as it had any fiscal relevance. Most attractive from a Conservative viewpoint, he could have removed Scots MPs from Westminster and returned to power with an absolute majority. Interestingly, Cameron’s attitude to the independence referendum was mirrored by his decision to have a referendum on the alternative vote rather than on full-blown PR. By declining to offer voters the PR prize, he encouraged more of them to use the referendum as means of punishing the Liberal-Democrats. If, on the other hand, first-past-the-post had been replaced, there would be no SNP tsunami heading for Westminster today.

Cameron’s second mistake was an economic one. Unemployment benefit accounts for only around 3% of welfare spending and has been frozen in real terms for decades. Using the economic crisis as an excuse to try to shrink the state was a strategy that brought high risks for little obvious gain. The very fact that benefits were being raised only in line with inflation meant that many Scots voters were not particularly conscious of whether they were devolved to Holyrood. On the other hand, Westminster’s decision to cut or cap such benefits and introduce such controversial reforms as the bedroom tax made them painfully aware of their parliament’s shortcomings.

Cameron’s third mistake was to latch onto EVEL as a short-term campaigning tactic in the current general election. If it works as he hopes, and he wins back enough English UKIP voters to achieve an overall majority in the Commons, there may well be a constitutional crisis, since Scotland will have returned even fewer Conservative and Liberal-Democrat MPs than at the last election, in all likelihood between zero and five. Moreover, the number of SNP Members of Parliament may be very high indeed. Together, those circumstances could throw the legitimacy of continued Westminster rule over Scotland into question.

If, on the other hand, Cameron fails in his bid to secure a majority, his willingness to articulate English nationalist critiques of the role of the SNP in a Westminster Government will still serve to legitimise further such attacks by the right-wing press, which knows that a full-term Labour Government with SNP input would be keen to break up media monopolies. Rupert Murdoch and others will therefore do anything in their power to bring such a Government down — and the best way to do that is to raise such a tide of populist sentiment against Ed Miliband that he rules out any deal with the Scots to provide him with a secure majority. As that would also mean a Government with little or no Scots input, that too could well lead to a constitutional crisis.

Taken as a whole, David Cameron’s actions are merely symptoms of a wider British disease, that of opportunistic short-termism. It is hard to imagine these kinds of errors being made in one of the continental social democracies so derided by English Conservatives. Of course, taking the long view, New Labour’s inability to introduce symmetrical devolution in English regions and reluctance to deal with such democratic anomalies as first-past-the-post and the House of Lords — also for short-term advantage — were little better. The forthcoming election has exposed the British state as a Heath-Robinson construct, and we may be about to see it come undone entirely.



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19 replies

  1. Camerons has been making mistakes since his party took office, in fact it is damn near impoosible to find anything he has touched which he hasn’t f’****d up. The problem as usual is the MSM who wilfully have covered his back and not made too much a fuss of his abismal leadership. He has even managed to make Brown seem competent.
    More power to your arm Dave, as Britain needs a useless bugger like yourself to completly finish the job of ending this rotten union. Just sayin like.

  2. Excellent analysis, though I think that in order of importance the unemployment issue probably ranks some way behind the devo-max and EVEL ones. Unionist politicians smarter than the present bunch would be advocating a genuinely federal UK with an English legislature, rather than tinkering with northern powerhouses and the like. Chuka Umunna came close to doing that the other day.

    Indeed, if one reads the SG referendum White Paper carefully (and factors in John Swinney’s acknowledgement of the constrained sovereignty inherent in currency union) it is no big stretch to argue that what it proposed was a confederal, if not actually federal, solution. I see that another contributor has mentioned Crown Dependency status and I must admit that on first reading the White Paper that looked rather like the prescription on offer.

    I suspect that, even now, an awful lot of us would choose a federal or confederal outcome, provided of course that we thought we could, in a reasonable timescale, win the Trident argument and retain our place in Europe. Indeed it would do the SNP no harm to acknowledge that as a responsible that as a sensible, if from their point of view imperfect and temporary, solution. In particular, it would wrong-foot those English nationalists who’ve deluded themselves into thinking that we’re all out to get them.

  3. “The first such mistake was his refusal to allow a second question in the independence referendum”

    It also created the foundation for Unionists to claim the referendum was divisive. This seems to be the pattern to much of what they do; they create the conditions and then criticise the actuality.

    I hope most people living in Scotland, regardless of their political persuasion, would agree that there was (and is) an appetite for a change in political governance. The elimination of a second question coupled with what has transpired since the referendum robbed people of this wish.

    It will be very interesting to see what transpires if Labour + SNP MPs command a majority in the House of Commons. If the elected SNP MPs are effectively frozen out of government, this will be yet another recent example of Scottish voters’ desires being ignored.

    It’s almost as if the Unionists are challenging their own natural supporters’ patience.

    • “they create the conditions and then criticise the actuality”

      this superbly sums up how the powerful seek to control others, not just here but also globally

      whenever we collectively realise what they are doing (as here and now in Scotland),
      then every move they make in this game digs them deeper into oblivion
      and they can’t understand – not one bit – why it isn’t working

  4. Camerons biggest mistake was to accept the argument that only labour could argue for the union in Scotland – everything else flows from that. he should have pushed for something very different, nuanced and non-partisan. Not the idiotic pish that anyone who voted labour, tory or lib-dem was a NO voter and all the YES voters were SNP. The very first polls showed there was a 3 way split between the various camps that clearly indicated the question was crossing party boundaries. He was in power long enough to realise that labour was losing its grip in Scotland to the SNP and that it’s inbuilt loathing of the party could do more harm in the long run. But then,when Cameron is dealt a poor hand he plays it badly. This was very evident with his EVEL proposals on the back of a narrow NO vote that did a lot of damage to the Union brand. I genuinely think that he thought he could be “bad cop” to Labours “good cop” and everything would be ok – back to normal, Scotland on the margins once more.

  5. I don’t know how history will write it but Glasgow “rickshaw man” with his welcome to our imperial masters will go down in folklore as the changing point for many. 🙂

  6. I’ll second that almansbunny.

    That episode and Robin McAlpine’s ‘Butterfly Rebellion’ I read on hear a few days later were highlights for me.

    Is this situation with 59 SNP MP’S for real or am I dreaming?

    • You’re dreaming. Dreaming’s good.

    • I fear that is a dream. I said around xmas hope for 20 and any more is a bonus, remembering the most SNP have ever returned was 11.

      2 months ago I upped that to 30, now …… I say 40. I think 40 would be a fair number but I strongly feel we will hit 50 but not much more.

      What is bizarre is the tactical voting. SNP have said they will support a labour government on a vote for vote basis. So SNP is a perfectly viable vote.

      Those voting Tory to tactically prevent SNP are putting Cameron back in to power?!?! They are idiots!!!

  7. totally agree about the “Imperial masters” – great stunt, great video, great lateral thinking from “the rickshaw man” Still don’t know his name but applaud his deed. Undoubtedly one of the best ever!

  8. Rather than seeing mistakes and blame attributed to Cameron or Thatcher, why can’t we see what a good job all the hard working SNP leaders, MP’s and party members have done and attribute praise. This almost reads like the same old negativity we expect from Westminster

    • I agree. SNP Leadership. Are intellectually superior to anything in Westminster just now. There grassroots support is amazing. They are out there doing everything possible for there Party. Nicola is a Role Model for our Youth. They are Awake and Politically in tune with what is happening in Scotland. They see Westminster as Corrupt. Expenses Millionaires. Cover Up Merchants. Lords and Lady’s. Getting £300. Per day to attend and fall asleep. Leave as soon as time is up to collect there £300. Every day of the week. Nice little earlier. They see Scotland’s Revenues going to Westminster to build up London. They will not forget the Maritime Line being moved at Midnight by Blair and Dewar so that England got , 7 Oil Wells and Gas Wells money now going into English coffers. Where does this all end. Independence.

    • it shows you the power of a clued up and energetic electorate its that which *really* terrifies the establishment

  9. I think Cameron’s biggest mistake was listening to the advisors and civil servants who actually run the state. These people are so far up their own behinds they have no clue or appreciation of the seismic political shift in Scotland. He was most certainly advised that the Yes vote would struggle to 20 per cent and you can see it in his smirking face when he signed the Edinburgh Agreement.

    He also was very badly advised on the morning of the 19th September to make a push for EVEL to run in ‘tandem’ with further Scottish devolution. This was a knife in the back to the red tory lackeys and a very big nail in the coffin of the union.

  10. From an English non-Conservative perspective Cameron has also been a dismal failure as leader of the United Kingdom. He has done nothing to protect and enhance the standing of the reputation of the Union either at home or abroad and the shallowness of his statesmanship has been a great embarrasement. To eager to adopt a Blair-like mantle which barely concealed his Thatcherite origins he is an obvious and transparent phony way out of his depth in the deeper and uncertain waters of current politics. The future – whatever it brings for all of us – will require much firmer and responsible handling by our leaders whoever they are. I hope they’re up for it for he sake of us all.

  11. Cameron did indeed make a huge error in the devo max option and I said that myself 3 years ago! I say it with even greater contempt for his mindset these days!! I was a devo max voter, he removed that option so could only vote yes, very silly indeed!

    70 – 80% would have voted in devo max but I doubt he would have got away with many of the stipulations listed here. It would be take it or leave it I fear. The main reason this was not offered, Scotland, would sail off on a fiscal assent that would leave the rUK in a terrible mess. Just look at Norway for example. Scotland has vast oil reserves (contrary to what we are told), I am sat on an oil platform at this very moment, vast energy renewable reserves, vast water supplies, vast exports and tourism ………….. London would have us believe Scotland is poor, Scotland is far from poor!

    Personally, if he had left devo max in, Scotland would have taken that and been happy for 20 years I reckon, but ultimately, you simply cannot keep a partner that is no longer willing to be there by buying them or threatening them, no right minded person would do so. The abuse, mistrust, slurs and threats by London is like the mistreatment of a partner in a marriage, it ends in divorce!!

    The elderly saved them as well as immigrants and those from elsewhere in the UK living in Scotland. If it was down to the born and bred Scots, they voted between 65 – 69% yes. Food for thought, it is a matter of time and sometimes, it is best just letting go rather than trying to hang on!

    EVEL I 100% agree with BUT it must be done in a devolved parliament as Scotland Wales and NI does, IT CANNOT BE DONE IN WESTMINSTER. Fiscal budgets that affect elsewhere must be voted on by all that are affected, FACT. To refuse such a vote is undemocratic and will see EU intervention and the break up of the UK even more quickly than we think just now!

  12. I agree completely regarding the short term opportunism

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