Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Cable's dance around imploding Union is just another pre-election tale of Tory apocalypse

Vince Cable may have attracted acclaim for his musings on the economy, but I would suggest that constitutional issues are not his specialist subject. Addressing a fringe event, at his party’s annual conference, the Liberal Democrat Treasury Spokesman delivered doom laden remarks, predicting a ‘constitutional crisis’, should Conservatives win the next election, and speculating that David Cameron could preside over the demise of the Union.

Yes indeed. The Tory apocalypse is imminent. Britain will first become a hermit state at the edge of the European Union, and then dissolve, because one centrist government takes the reins from another.

We’ll return to Dr Cable’s conference remarks, as reported by the Press and Journal, a little later. But it’s worth noting that the source of the former Glasgow councillor’s anxiety was a recent trip to the Scottish Highlands. The ‘gathering storm’ of Scots’ independence is a notion, then, that Vincent conceived in tranquillity, relatively recently, inspired by three separate news stories.

First – the SNP administration is criticised by politicians in London for its mishandling of the Megrahi affair, it transpires that the Labour government by no means has ‘clean hands’ as regards Libya. Second – a referendum on Scottish independence is ‘announced’. Third – civil servants in Edinburgh are reported to be preparing for the break up of the UK. Cable feels ‘emotionally involved’.

It is surprising, given the Lib Dem’s supposed analytical abilities, that he allowed himself to become so excessively alarmed by three speculative stories. The first charts unhappiness with the SNP’s conduct which was reflected throughout the United Kingdom, including Scotland. Certainly the Labour government displayed acute hypocrisy throughout the episode, but Alex Salmond’s party turned an issue of international importance into a grandstanding piece of nationalist propaganda. Far from exemplifying centrifugal forces in action, it demonstrated a regional executive, thrown into a turbulent international ocean, far beyond its depth, with only its well worn rubber ring of ethno-nat rhetoric on which to bob up and down.

The referendum which was ‘announced’ is an SNP aspiration which is unlikely to see the light of day. If it were to be held it is extremely improbable that Scottish voters would voluntarily elect to leave the United Kingdom. Cable’s own party will oppose any legislation brought forward to advance this referendum project.

Finally, Scottish civil servants, under the tutelage of a nationalist executive are supposedly preparing for independence? I don’t think we need consign a job lot of Union Flags to EBay just yet.

But wait. Perhaps we shouldn’t dismiss Vince’s apprehensions so swiftly. After all he did live in Scotland and he was involved in Glasgow politics, ‘before the emergence of nationalism as a serious political force’.

I wonder whether Cable’s nickname at school might’ve been ‘Rusty’? Because his memory appears to tend a little in that direction. During his spell as a Glasgow councillor, in the early seventies, nationalism was buoyant. In the October 1974 general election the SNP claimed eleven seats and 30% of the Scottish vote, which remains its best result, by some distance, in a Westminster poll. During his time in Glasgow, the Royal Commission recommended devolution, as a response to nationalism in Scotland. Can he really have forgotten these developments?

Would I be too cynical to suggest that there is nothing wrong with ‘Rusty’ Cable’s memory? Indeed should I go further and allege that his sudden attack of anxiety about the Union is rather contrived?

When it comes to substantiating his apocalyptic predictions, Cable’s arguments are actually pretty thin, both in the Daily Mail article, and the remarks which were reported this morning. The Conservatives MIGHT have few representatives outside England. This MIGHT cause resentment, in Scotland in particular, and perpetual clashes with an SNP administration.

There is a fairly transparent insinuation that the Tories are actually an English nationalist party and the frankly ridiculous revelation that Cable ‘hopes’ (but presumably is not convinced) that David Cameron’s intention is to hold together the United Kingdom. How this all fits together into the broader picture of ‘unfinished consequences’ of the ‘devolutionary settlement’ is a little unclear.

Is this a problem with the Conservatives or with devolution? Will the UK remain safe just so long as one of the two major parties does not achieve power?

Alistair Carmichael MP, the Liberal Democrats’ Scottish affairs spokesman, sought to substantiate his colleague’s thesis with even more outrageous assertions. A Conservative administration would effectively be an ‘English nationalist government’ he claims.

“I hope that the Conservatives, who used to be a Unionist party, will wake up to the risks of some of their rhetoric.”

A fairly bizarre statement given that Conservative rhetoric, under Cameron, has been particularly unionist. Can a unionist position render a party ‘English nationalist’ simply because its message might not be convivial to the SNP?

The Conservatives are seeking a national mandate when they go to the polls at the next general election. They form the only Westminster party which will field candidates in all four regions of the United Kingdom and they have a good chance of returning a majority of MPs from at least two of them. Although they are unlikely to top the poll in either Scotland, or Northern Ireland, these are the types of asymmetries which are unavoidable under the UK’s constitution. Conservative and Unionist representatives from either or both might well form part of the next national government.

On occasion Scottish and Welsh members have sustained a Labour majority in the House of Commons, whilst England has been nominally Conservative. Arguably, with devolved institutions reflecting separate mandates in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, English voters would have a right to feel more aggrieved if this situation were to recur in the modern era. A Scottish Parliament and the two Assemblies would reflect the inclinations of their regions, whilst England would be without a body representing its unique political complexion. As supporters of the Union, Conservatives would be bound to accept the decision of the UK electorate, as a whole.

Whichever government presides at Westminster, an SNP administration in Edinburgh will certainly attempt to undermine its authority. However, with strong unionist inclinations (certainly stronger than the Lib Dems), and a wily leader, who understands the importance of oiling the interfaces between central government and devolved institutions, the Conservatives are well placed to strengthen the Union, rather than undermine it.

Opposition parties will ceaselessly attempt to narrate tales of impending Tory apocalypse; whether they involve Britain leaving the European Union, a state stripped of public services or a Union imploding with shared detestation of Eton. The electorate shouldn’t be dissuaded from its decision by baseless doom mongering.


Glyn Chambers said...


What hypocrisy! The Lib Dems are so racked by their own divisions on the issue of a Scottish independence referendum that their MSPs have apparently been barred from speaking about it:


It's unfortunate that this ban does not extend to their Westminster candidates and MPs.

What's clear from all of this is that it's the Lib Dems themselves who are in the throes of a "constitutional crisis" and it's utterly ridiculous of them to be questioning our unionism.

Toque said...

I'm not sure that there will be a constitutional crisis that will precipitate Scottish secession, but it's going to be a very rocky ride if the Tories get in.

There's going to be public spending cuts, there's the issue of Trident, it will fall to a Tory administration to oversee the Calman proposals and, let's not forget, that England will win the World Cup a couple of months after Cameron comes to power.

Cable also said that only the Lib Dem's commitment to a federal system of government with fully devolved governments for the nations and regions was the only solution to the current tension.

Unfortunately (for connoisseurs of joined up thinking and policy-making), in another policy paper, his party pledged to abolish regional assemblies in England (and most of the regional quangos that they oversee).

Anonymous said...

Its the proposed federal system for "nations" ie Scotland and Wales and "regions" ie England that is the poison.

Regions have been comprehensivley rejected by the English and still the political elite bang on about it, for England only of course ie England to be abolished.

Now, if the libdums were to propose for England what they cheer for Scotland ie a national parliament and self government, they might get somewhere.
In the end, the Westminster elite, of which the libs are a part, will grasp that if they want save the rapidly disintegrating Union they are going to have to accept a national parliament for England and federal UK , which is what it always should have been.

They are slow to cotton on though and are dead against democracy for England but desperation might lend them speed, particularly when it dawns on them that as far as the English are concerned, the union with Scotland could disappear tomorrow and they would not care.

Kevinho said...

As someone with Lib Dem sympathies, I agree with Glyn and Toque that the Lib Dems are somewhat constitutionally confused. Presently the party suffers from weak leadership and a general confusion about post credit crunch policy. But I happen to think Vince is right too. The last Tory government did more to advance the cause of Scottish devolution than the SNP ever could, by failing to manage the economic transition they created as well as they might have done, then by lumping the Poll Tax on top of it. Then comes devolution and when people want to vote for a centre right party they vote for the SNP. Within this framework its not hard to see Scotland parting from the Union by mutual consent. I don't support independence but I don't blame people for voting SNP when it appears to be the only viable alternative to the left-wing cronies club that is Scottish Labour.

Chekov said...

.when people want to vote for a centre right party they vote for the SNP

Kevin – I seriously doubt that most SNP voters perceive that they are voting for a centre-right alternative to the Tories. I suspect that (wrongly) they view the party as a social democrat alternative to Labour. The dangerous thing is that they are getting neither. They are getting a very disingenuous group of died in the wool traditional nationalist wolves dressed in civic sheep’s clothing.

Centre right, I think wrongly, has been associated squarely with the excesses of Thatcherism. But Cameron is a very different beast from Thatcher and the Union is a much more live issue than it was during the eighties.

The difficulty, as has been observed, is that he is going to come to power during an economic crisis. Governments, national and regional, will have decisions to make on spending, and if an SNP executive remains in Scotland, it will be very reluctant to own its decisions. They will be blamed on Westminster cuts and Thatcherite Tories.

All of which leaves Cameron a task of presentation, making certain that this narrative does not go challenged and ensuring that his government is seen to engage constructively with Scottish institutions. There will be a temptation to implement Calman and allow Holyrood to assume more responsibility for its own finances.

The point remains that it is a tricky area for any governing party and it is ludicrous to claim than one particular party is so perfidious that the Scots would be quite justified in walking away from the Union, which is the subtext of Cable’s argument.

Cameron is a moderate, centrist politician, with unionist instincts. Vince’s apocalypse is a party political invention (insofar as it holds true only for Tories).