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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Leader: History is not written in stone

Statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political.

When a mishmash of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, Trump supporters and private militias gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia on 12 August – a rally that ended in the death of a counter-protester – the ostensible reason was the city’s proposal to remove a statue of a man named Robert E Lee.

Lee was a Confederate general who surrendered to Ulysses S Grant at the Appomattox Court House in 1865, in one of the last battles of the American Civil War – a war fought to ensure that Southern whites could continue to benefit from the forced, unpaid labour of black bodies. He died five years later. It might therefore seem surprising that the contested statue of him in Virginia was not commissioned until 1917.

That knowledge, however, is vital to understanding the current debate over such statues. When the “alt-right” – many of whom have been revealed as merely old-fashioned white supremacists – talk about rewriting history, they speak as if history were an objective record arising from an organic process. However, as the American journalist Vann R Newkirk II wrote on 22 August, “obelisks don’t grow from the soil, and stone men and iron horses are never built without purpose”. The Southern Poverty Law Center found that few Confederate statues were commissioned immediately after the end of the war; instead, they arose in reaction to advances such as the foundation of the NAACP in 1909 and the desegregation of schools in the 1950s and 1960s. These monuments represent not history but backlash.

That means these statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political. They were designed to promote the “Lost Cause” version of the Civil War, in which the conflict was driven by states’ rights rather than slavery. A similar rhetorical sleight of hand can be seen in the modern desire to keep them in place. The alt-right is unwilling to say that it wishes to retain monuments to white supremacy; instead, it claims to object to “history being rewritten”.

It seems trite to say: that is inevitable. Our understanding of the past is perpetually evolving and the hero of one era becomes a pariah in the next. Feminism, anti-colonialism, “people’s history” – all of these movements have questioned who we celebrate and whose stories we tell.

Across the world, statues have become the focus for this debate because they are visible, accessible and shape our experience of public space. There are currently 11 statues in Parliament Square – all of them male. (The suffragist Millicent Fawcett will join them soon, after a campaign led by Caroline Criado-Perez.) When a carving of a disabled artist, Alison Lapper, appeared on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, its sculptor, Marc Quinn, acknowledged its significance. “This square celebrates the courage of men in battle,” he said. “Alison’s life is a struggle to overcome much greater difficulties than many of the men we celebrate and commemorate here.”

There are valid reasons to keep statues to figures we would now rather forget. But we should acknowledge this is not a neutral choice. Tearing down our history, looking it in the face, trying to ignore it or render it unexceptional – all of these are political acts. 

The Brexit delusion

After the UK triggered Article 50 in March, the Brexiteers liked to boast that leaving the European Union would prove a simple task. The International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, claimed that a new trade deal with the EU would be “one of the easiest in human history” to negotiate and could be agreed before the UK’s scheduled departure on 29 March 2019.

However, after the opening of the negotiations, and the loss of the Conservatives’ parliamentary majority, reality has reasserted itself. All cabinet ministers, including Mr Fox, now acknowledge that it will be impossible to achieve a new trade deal before Brexit. As such, we are told that a “transitional period” is essential.

Yet the government has merely replaced one delusion with another. As its recent position papers show, it hopes to leave institutions such as the customs union in 2019 but to preserve their benefits. An increasingly exasperated EU, unsurprisingly, retorts that is not an option. For Britain, “taking back control” will come at a cost. Only when the Brexiteers acknowledge this truth will the UK have the debate it so desperately needs. 

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia