David Cameron’s call for Scotland to hold a yes or no referendum on independence “sooner rather than later,” is what some advisers called “the nuclear option.” He was challenging the most successful British politician of the moment—Alex Salmond, leader of the SNP—to drop his demand for a poll in 2014, devised to deliver him victory.
Cameron’s decision to clash with Salmond shows that the breakdown of the 300-year-old social, political and cultural alliance between Scotland and England is no longer a matter of speculation. It is set to become the biggest constitutional issue of this parliamentary term, and the decade.
But as Cameron campaigns for the Union, he will find that some Conservative MPs are not up for the fight. Many are resigned to the once-taboo notion that England’s ties to Scotland could weaken. Some are even privately relishing the tactical advantage it would give them in future elections for Westminster. They are bolstered by the small band now calling for a separate parliament for England.
One adviser, describing the Conservative party north of the border, said: “We always say it can’t get any worse, and it always does.” The dilemma for MPs in what is still formally “the Conservative and Unionist Party” is spelled out by the numbers. Scottish Conservatives were wiped out in 1997. They regained a single MP in Scotland in 2001, but still only have one. Labour has 41 seats north of the border, the Liberal Democrats 11, and the SNP six. In the 2005 general election, the Tories gained some 60,000 more votes in England than Labour, even though they lost overall. Michael Portillo, the former leadership candidate, and others have argued that the Tories would govern the rest of the UK more easily without Scotland because they would far more easily get majorities in Westminster—some think perpetually. On the BBC’s This Week in 2006, Portillo told Andrew Neil: “From the point of political advantage, the Conservatives have a better chance of being in government if Scotland is not part of the affair… You are continuing to assume the Union is sacrosanct. That is not an assumption I make any more.”
A majority of Scots want to remain in the UK, as shown by Peter Kellner’s polling opposite. But the tide is turning against the Union. Devolution in 1999 created the Scottish parliament with primary legislative powers over education, health and employment. This increased the appetite in Scotland for independence, as the Labour MP Tam Dalyell warned prophetically in the 1970s. The banking crash and European turmoil, while not helpful to small would-be nations, have not checked the campaign.
Salmond wants a poll that he thinks he can win, with two questions: on outright independence, and on “devolution-max,” which stops short of that. And he doesn’t want to hold it before 2014, when the Commonwealth Games and the Ryder Cup come to Scotland. That year is also the 700th anniversary of the battle of Bannockburn, a decisive victory over the English that secured Scottish independence for centuries.
The Scottish Conservatives have a new leader, Ruth Davidson, who is in her early thirties, openly gay, and a Cameron protégée—the prime minister hopes that she will reinvigorate the case against separation. Yet in opposition, he struck a more ambivalent note, willing to exploit the “West Lothian question” that Dalyell warned would follow devolution: why should Scottish MPs vote in Westminster on English matters, when English MPs could not vote in the Scottish parliament?
Cameron’s equivocation led to an attack by Alastair Campbell, the Anglo-Scottish former adviser to Tony Blair: “It really would be something if the UK broke up on the watch of a Tory government. But Cameron’s failure strategically to speak up for the Union, preferring short-term tactical troublemaking, would be one of the reasons.”
As prime minister, Cameron has become a staunch Unionist, telling the Scottish Conservatives last year, “I want to be prime minister of Britain, not England.” This is the party’s formal position. Malcolm Rifkind, the former Scottish secretary, says there is no significant movement against the Union among senior Conservatives. He admits, though, to “the occasional grumble, because of Labour dominance, or the West Lothian question, or the Barnett formula.” Under the formula devised in 1978, Scots receive 20 per cent more money per head than the English; the SNP retorts that the subsidy is covered by tax revenues raised on North Sea oil.
Rifkind makes a powerful case against Portillo: “The argument that the Conservatives would have perpetual rule in England is patently absurd. That is exactly what Labour thought about Scotland after devolution, and now the SNP has won, which wasn’t part of the plan. No part of the Kingdom will accept one-party rule.”
But elsewhere in the party, there is a new tendency to question the value of the Union. Iain Dale, the Westminster commentator with close ties to many Tory MPs, explains: “Many Conservatives are now questioning what benefit there is to Scotland remaining within the United Kingdom. The devolution genie cannot be forced back into the bottle, so if it’s good enough for Scotland, many are saying it should be good enough for England.”
Talking to some Tory MPs off the record, you detect resignation, or even relish. “Let them cut themselves loose; see if we care,” says one senior Tory backbencher. Another confirms that the number who want break-up for the sake of party advantage “is definitely increasing. People are fed up.” Tories who back Scottish independence argue that “rump UK” would retain nuclear weapons, its place at the UN Security Council and in the EU and its status as the fifth largest economy in the world.
Portillo’s argument for separation was significant because he was the architect of the socially and economically liberal Tory wing from which Cameron emerged, and which wanted to continue Margaret Thatcher’s dream of rolling back the state. This was distinct from the one nation, traditionalist strand, stretching back to Harold Macmillan and Benjamin Disraeli.
Backbenchers have begun to talk about another device that would weaken the Union—the creation of a parliament for England alone. Research in 2010 by the IPPR found that 91 per cent of Tory MPs believe Scottish MPs should be barred from voting on English matters and 72 per cent believe England is “losing out” under the status quo. As John Redwood has said: “The English have been quiet for a long time, but the English lions are awakening.”
David Davis, a constitutional expert as well as an MP, has long called for “English votes” on “English matters.” In recent months, Tory MPs including Andrew Rosindell and Roger Gale have met representatives of the Campaign for an English Parliament, whose chairman, Eddie Bone, claims to number his supporters in the “hundreds of thousands.” UKIP recently adopted the policy of an English parliament, and its campaigners were invited to hold talks with the SNP. Rosindell, MP for Romford, confirms that he is backing an English parliament. “Clearly after devolution there is an imbalanced constitution. The current situation isn’t fair on England.”
Rosindell, who calls himself “a staunch Unionist,” wants a parallel English parliament, with powers over education, health and local government. “It is almost like a federal Britain we are talking about,” he adds. On this, he has an unlikely ally in Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who said last year: “Ultimately, we want to move towards a federal United Kingdom.” Cameron disagrees.
Today, Scottish nationalists complain of Westminster “meddling.” But if Cameron’s gamble pays off, and he succeeds in imposing an in or out referendum on Scotland, he will probably save the Union—for now.