Would the Tories surrender Scotland?

Prospect Magazine

Would the Tories surrender Scotland?


The lure of perpetual Conservative majorities in Westminster threatens the Union

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.

  1. February 18, 2012

    Chris Vine

    Your by-line “The lure of perpetual Conservative majorities in Westminster threatens the Union” both betrays the remainder of the article, and the facts.

    There have been only two Labour majority governments which did not have a majority of members in England: those of 1950 and February 1974. The February 1974 government collapsed and after an October election turned into a Lib-Lab pact in which no party had a majority in either the UK as a whole or England. All other Labour governments have had majorities in England.

  2. February 18, 2012

    Home Rule for England

    Any English Parliament would surely be a modern parliament elected by proportional representation as is the Scottish Parliament? We English will not want elections to our national parliament to be by the ‘see saw, it’s your turn now it’s my turn’ method used by the British.
    Also, elections to the English Parliament will not necessariy mirror those to the British parliament. This fact was well demonstrated by the 2011 Scottish Parliament election which returned far more SNP MSPs than the Westminster election returned SNP MP’s.

  3. February 18, 2012

    David Kelly

    Why would an English parliament weaken the ‘Union’? Didn’t the creation of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh and Northern Irish Assemblies weaken the ‘Union’?
    Your statement is highly subjective and hypocritical, not to mention Anglophobic.

    By the way, Andrew Rosindell might a federal arrangement (or something close to it), including an English parliament, but that is not the federalism Clegg has in mind. His preferred option is the racist Anglophobic option, regional assemblies, which the English people are known not to favour. Mind you, Clegg is neither a liberal nor a democrat and giving people what they want is anathema to him.

  4. February 18, 2012


    It is good to hear that many in the Tory Party are starting to believe in the creation of an English Parliament. We now need the Lib Dems and Labour to follow suit, but will they?

    It looks like an English Parliament is going to be driven by the Tories and UKIP whilst Regionalism is going to be driven by Labour and Lib Dems.

  5. February 18, 2012

    Nick Dekker

    Two comments.

    - There is a cartoon in the Herald which shows David Cameron with a coption under saying,
    ‘ One Nation Tory’, while alongside there is a map of Scotland below which it says,
    ‘ One Tory Nation ‘.

    - I have been interested in Scottish politics for decades and I remember when policies like Scottish Government reorganisation ( 1974 ) were foisted on Scotland when the majority of Scottish MPs voted against it. With only 59 Scottish MPs it is impossible for Scottish MPs to foist anything on England. Where was the principle then, as it is still possible for this to happen again.

  6. February 20, 2012

    Felix Quero

    Alea jacta esto – The die is cast!

    Caesar and his armies hesitated at the Rubicon. He informed his soldiers that once they cross it they will have to fight all the way to Rome, and Caesar was well aware that he was risking not just his own life but that of his loyal soldiers too. There was no going back he reasoned. It was a gamble and one he had to win. Pompey was a formidable opponent. Well we know Caesar was triumphant. Caesar had vision and strength of character.

    We have crossed the proverbial and we are definitely not going back. We march on Westminster with a fiercely proud nation at our backs. Quoting from Virgil Aeneid “As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood.’” We are not filled with fear; we have a steely determination. There will be rivers of blood, not in the literal sense of course, but the question is, will you play your part? Will you hold the line? Do you have passion and a firm, unwavering belief in Scottish Independence?

    The Scottish want back what is rightly theirs. Scotland seeks parity and respect. Scotland wants to be at the helm to chart its own course. Scotland’s future is bright and together as a nation it will triumph and prosper. The Scottish have passion and an innate alacrity for freedom. We do not want partial autonomy or half-baked concessions. We want nothing more nothing less but to be masters of our own destiny.

    Cameron speaks of prestige and a 300 years union. We speak of a people, dignity, national pride and identity. We speak of the economy and its impact on our people. This fight is about who we are as a nation. It’s not about the Bullingdon mentality or the Bilderberg mind-set, or the Enlighten ones, the lackeys, or hangers on some ethereal seat in a EU or UN council or committee. We give a churchillian salute to that nonsense.

    Westminster is at odds with the common man. This fight is about the grass roots – the man on the streets. This 300 years union, a misnomer if ever there was one, is moribund. The 300 years debacle of colonialism and suppression will die a timely death.

    Last month the EU messenger boy exercised his veto but later renege on it. Miliband mocked, ‘With this Prime Minister a veto isn’t for life, it’s just for Christmas.’ We call it appeasement and surrender. Sadly but inevitably Cameron has become caricature. Can anyone take this cartoon serious? With this government there is so much guff and little substance. If we don’t act now then we will have betrayed those warriors that really spilled blood and died on those battlefields. What heritage would you want to pass on to your children? Would you not want to live free on your feet in your lifetime or sell out your descendents to a millennium on their knees?

    We have crossed the Rubicon and there is no going back. Look forward with determination, passion and focus on Scottish prosperity and future. If you are unsure you will dither and hesitate and you will find yourself in the fields of Elysium regretting not having grasped the nettle. The obstacles are many but with resolve and vision we can surmount these and all. Julius Caesar and his men swiftly crossed the Rubicon and they march double time toward Rome. The rest is history as they say. Let’s create our own history.

    The Battle of Bannockburn, 24th June 1314, was a significant Scottish victory in the Wars of Scottish Independence. It was the decisive battle. It could not have been more simple back then – perhaps. You knew your enemy by his attire and the fact that he was jousting his sword in your direction. Today, the battle could not be more deceptive and complicated with legal jargon and bull.

    It was a masterstroke by Alex Salmond that trumped last week. A simple, short sentence uttered while the Commons debate was still in process. Standing in front of a crackling open fire and two furled saltires, Alex Salmond told the BBC, in a clip that will be played over and over again. ‘The referendum will be held in the autumn of 2014’. Cometh the hour cometh the man – Alex Salmond’s unambiguous simple message; succinct and impassioned relegated the young upstart, Michael Moore, the UK government’s response to the SNP’s referendum plans, to an insignificant afterthought.

    The day soon cometh my friend – embrace your destiny or be destroyed by it!

    Felix Quero 20/02/12

    • October 11, 2012


      You write like the fine Scottish archaeologist/historian Neil Oliver. Thank you for this post. I hope it inspires many Scots to vote YES.

  7. April 3, 2012

    John Ellis

    I find talk of different options such as an English Parliament mere froth: if there is to be a Union, then let us have a lengthy and mature debate about a written constitution and not this endless political tactical games.

    If Scotland does gain independence (as a result of Westminster/Whitehall ineptitude then equally there will be an urgent need for a written constitution for what remains – whatever it will be called.

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James Macintyre
James Macintyre is Prospect's politics editor and co-author of "Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader" 

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