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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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

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