Why Cameron's Scotland plan has rattled the SNP

The PM has called Salmond's bluff by demanding an independence referendum sooner rather than later.

Ever since the Scottish National Party's remarkable victory last May, Westminster has been in a state of shock, unsure how to proceed. But now, finally, David Cameron, determined not be remembered as the man who lost the Union, has resolved on a course of action. He will allow the SNP to stage its own binding referendum on independence on the condition that it is held in the next 18 months (any referendum after this date will be advisory, as it would always would have been) and that it offers a straight yes/no question on Scottish secession.

Cameron's move upsets Salmond's plans in several respects. The First Minister has long intended to hold a referendum in the second half of the Scottish parliament, perhaps in 2014 on the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, when he believes that discontent with the Tory-led government will be at its height. In addition, he planned for the ballot paper to feature two questions, one on independence and one on full fiscal autonomy or "devolution max". Aware that there may not be a majority for the former, the SNP leader is eyeing the consolation prize of "devo max", a stepping stone to full independence. But Cameron is determined to deny Salmond these two advantages. To add authority to his stance, he will publish a consultation paper later this week revealing legal advice that the referendum will only be binding if both parliaments agree to its timing and wording.

There is, of course, a risk that all this could backfire. Cameron's intervention could be seen as an attempt by the Tories - not a popular breed in Scotland - to hijack a referendum that the SNP has an electoral mandate to hold. It was an argument made at length by Nicola Sturgeon, Salmond's deputy, on the Today programme this morning. But, as she conceded, there is a potential contradiction in the SNP's stance. It maintains both that Cameron has no right to dictate the terms of the referendum and that his move will backfire. But if Cameron's move will backfire why is the Scottish government so opposed to it? The answer, as Sturgeon will not say, is that the SNP is not convinced there will be a majority for independence in the next 18 months (or ever) and, consequently, is determined to reserve the option of devolution max. Yes, some Scottish voters will resent Cameron's intervention but others will ask, "why doesn't Salmond want an early referendum? What's the big feartie afraid of?"

Set against this must be the disorganisation of the pro-Union side (who will lead the No campaign?) but Cameron has called Salmond's bluff and the initiative, for the first time in months, is with him.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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