Cameron's anti-independence plot bound to backfire

A pre-emptive referendum on independence will only increase the SNP's chance of success.

David Cameron yesterday accused Alex Salmond of being a "big feartie"- an old Scots term meaning 'scared' - for refusing to set a date for a referendum on Scottish independence.

Speaking at a Scots Night event at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, Cameron said the SNP leader was guilty of "endlessly trying to create grievance between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom" in order to leverage support for his plan to break-up Britain. In an interview with the BBC, the Prime Minister also declined to rule out unilaterally holding a vote on Scotland's constitutional status unless the Scottish Government was more active in bringing forward its referendum proposals.

This idea has been floating around since the SNP won an unprecedented majority at the Holyrood elections in May and appears to be gathering cross-party support.

Last week, Shadow Scotland Secretary Ann McKechin and Shadow Defence Secretary Jim Murphy indicated that they were not averse to a Westminster poll on the grounds that ongoing constitutional 'uncertainty' was damaging Scotland's economic recovery. In the House of Lords, Tory peer Michael Forsyth and Labour peer George Foulkes have each tabled separate amendments to the Scotland Bill which, if successful, would make London solely responsible for instigating a poll.

Technically speaking, the Forsyth and Foulkes amendments are entirely unnecessary: in its current form the devolution settlement does not allow the Scottish Parliament to hold legally binding referendums. But the fact that senior Westminster figures are exploring the possibility of "calling Salmond's bluff"in this manner suggests a rising sense of panic in the Unionist camp. It also reveals that leading Unionists haven't seriously considered the likely effects of such a move.

One of the reasons the SNP has been so successful in recent years is because it has cast itself as the 'National Party of Scotland', rather than just the Scottish National Party. At the May election, this strategy resulted in nationalist breakthroughs in Labour's Glasgow and central-belt heartlands, as well as in traditionally Liberal Highland constituencies. The SNP even managed to win a majority of first-past-the-post seats in affluent, small-c conservative Edinburgh, despite the fact the capital has never been very receptive to the nationalist movement.

Another aspect of Salmond's bid for national dominance has been his relentless promotion of the idea that sovereignty ultimately lies with the Scottish people, not with the Westminster parliament. In a small country with a communitarian tradition and a history steeped in the 'democratic intellect', this carries huge resonance. As such, any attempt by the Tories to impose a referendum on Scotland will only re-enforce the popular impression, cultivated during the Thatcher years, that London is belligerent and dismissive when to comes to Scottish opinion. This would in turn greatly increase the likelihood of a Yes vote.

Finally, it shouldn't be forgotten that neither Labour nor the Conservatives have a mandate to stage a pre-emptive ballot on independence. Although Labour comfortably won the Westminster election in Scotland last year, they did so as a party militantly opposed to the staging of any vote on secession at all. Only the SNP can claim to have the consistently campaigned for and supported the right of Scots to decide for themselves. A sudden, coordinated reversal of policy by the Unionist parties would look cynical, not to mention desperate.

James Maxwell is a Scottish political journalist. He is based between Scotland and London.

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.