The flaws of Cameron's Unionism

The PM failed to offer a truly positive alternative to Scottish independence.

It was an unusually humble David Cameron who spoke in Edinburgh today. He admitted that the Conservative Party "isn't currently Scotland's most influential political movement", adding that "more than a little humility" is called for when any contemporary Tory speaks in the country. And, with no little sincerity, he brushed aside those who point out that the Tories would benefit politically if Scotland went it alone. "I'm not here to make a case on behalf of my party, its interests or its approach to office. I'm here to stand up and speak out for what I believe in," he said.

Unlike some opponents of independence, Cameron focused on the positive case for the Union, rather than the negative case against an independent Scotland. In an eloquent and emotional paean to the UK, he declared that "we have turned a group of off-shore European islands into one of the most successful countries in the world."

But it's not hard to see why his speech will have left many Scots cold. It took some chutzpah for Cameron to claim that "we all benefit from being part of a properly-funded welfare system" when his government is imposing £18bn of welfare cuts.

In a reference to the failed Glasgow Airport terrorist attack, he boasted that the "the full resources of the UK state went into running down every lead. Our tentacles reach from the border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan to the CIA computers at Langley." But for many Scots, this will serve only as a reminder of the disastrous foreign policy pursued by the UK government in recent years. An independent Scotland would not have gone to war with Iraq or become trapped in Afghanistan and, some will say, would have been safer as a result.

Cameron held out the possibility of further devolution after the referendum but was notably vague about the form this could take. The danger for the Unionist parties is that Scottish voters, the majority of whom support fiscal autonomy, conclude that the only way to win it is to vote for full independence. If Cameron wants to offer a truly positive alternative to secession, he should embrace "devo max".

The campaign against Scottish independence will not lead by Cameron but by social democratic heavyweights like Alistair Darling, Charles Kennedy and Ming Campbell. Today's speech was a reminder of why.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.