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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Jeremy Corbyn's Labour conference speech shows how he's grown

The leader's confident address will have impressed even his fiercest foes. 

It is not just Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate that has been improved by his re-election. The Labour leader’s conference speech was, by some distance, the best he has delivered. He spoke with far greater confidence, clarity and energy than previously. From its self-deprecating opening onwards ("Virgin Trains assure me there are 800 empty seats") we saw a leader improved in almost every respect. 

Even Corbyn’s firecest foes will have found less to take issue with than they may have anticipated. He avoided picking a fight on Trident (unlike last year), delivered his most forceful condemnation of anti-Semitism (“an evil”) and, with the exception of the Iraq war, avoided attacks on New Labour’s record. The video which preceded his arrival, and highlighted achievements from the Blair-Brown years, was another olive branch. But deselection, which Corbyn again refused to denounce, will remain a running sore (MPs alleged that Hillsborough campaigner Sheila Coleman, who introduced Corbyn, is seeking to deselect Louise Ellman and backed the rival TUSC last May).

Corbyn is frequently charged with lacking policies. But his lengthy address contained several new ones: the removal of the cap on council borrowing (allowing an extra 60,000 houses to be built), a ban on arms sales to abusive regimes and an arts pupil premium in every primary school.

On policy, Corbyn frequently resembles Ed Miliband in his more radical moments, unrestrained by Ed Balls and other shadow cabinet members. He promised £500bn of infrastructure investment (spread over a decade with £150bn from the private sector), “a real living wage”, the renationalisation of the railways, rent controls and a ban on zero-hours contracts.

Labour’s greatest divisions are not over policy but rules, strategy and culture. Corbyn’s opponents will charge him with doing far too little to appeal to the unconverted - Conservative voters most of all. But he spoke with greater conviction than before of preparing for a general election (acknowledging that Labour faced an arithmetical “mountain”) and successfully delivered the attack lines he has often shunned.

“Even Theresa May gets it, that people want change,” he said. “That’s why she stood on the steps of Downing Street and talked about the inequalities and burning injustices in today’s Britain. She promised a country: ‘that works not for a privileged few but for every one of us’. But even if she manages to talk the talk, she can’t walk the walk. This isn’t a new government, it’s David Cameron’s government repackaged with progressive slogans but with a new harsh right-wing edge, taking the country backwards and dithering before the historic challenges of Brexit.”

After a second landslide victory, Corbyn is, for now, unassailable. Many MPs, having voted no confidence in him, will never serve on the frontbench. But an increasing number, recognising Corbyn’s immovability, speak once again of seeking to “make it work”. For all the ructions of this summer, Corbyn’s speech will have helped to persuade them that they can.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.