Cameron's state of the union flop

The SNP will be delighted with the Prime Minister's lacklustre speech in Edinburgh.

Even before David Cameron delivered his speech in defence of the union in Edinburgh this afternoon, the Scottish National Party had already dismissed it as "threadbare and outdated". In retrospect, the nationalists could have added "ill-informed" and "underwhelming" and they still would have fallen slightly short of the mark.
 
It's safe to say that the Prime Minister's attempt today to develop a positive case for Scotland to remain within the United Kingdom probably won't be remembered as one of the turning points in the debate about Scotland's constitutional future.
 
On the contrary, Cameron gave the distinct impression of someone who hadn't seriously examined his opponent's arguments. At times, in fact, he gave the impression of someone who hadn't really examined his own. "Scotland", he said, "is richer and fairer as part of the UK". But the facts simply don't back this up. Over the last 35 - 40 years, North Sea oil production has generated as much as £300bn in tax revenues for the UK Exchequer, yet Scottish rates of income inequality have skyrocketed while social mobility has stagnated. Only a Home Counties Conservative could describe that as "fair".
 
The emotive elements of Cameron's address were similarly unpersuasive. "The link between our nations is a precious thing. It's about our history, our values, our shared identity". Well, of course. But just because two nations share some sense of an identity it doesn't mean they should also share a government, a parliament or a constitution. Few would deny the strength of the cultural relationship between Britain and Ireland. Fewer still believe the latter should re-join the UK because of it. Indeed, from a nationalist perspective, Cameron's decision to emphasise the common historical experiences of the Scots and the English will be seen as an indication of the intellectual weakness of unionism. Alex Salmond knows that the referendum will be won or lost on political and economic, rather than sentimental, grounds. Unionists should be worried that their leaders have not yet come to the same realisation.
 
Worse still, in claiming that the provisions contained within the Scotland Bill would give the Scottish Parliament tax raising powers "for the first time", Cameron revealed his poor grasp of the details of the current devolutionary settlement. Holyrood already has the power to vary income tax rates by 3p in the pound.
 
In reality, nationalists are quietly delighted with Cameron's apparent eagerness to be involved in the referendum campaign. The Tory brand remains contaminated north of the border and, since Thatcher, attempts by the Conservative Party to influence Scottish opinion have come across as hectoring and belligerent. What's more, every trip Cameron makes to Scotland serves as a reminder of how thin his mandate in the country is. It is common knowledge that support for the Tories in Scotland has fallen steadily over the last six decades. It less well known that if the coalition survives for the duration of this parliamentary session, Scots will have spent almost as many post-war years ruled by Westminster governments they didn't vote for as those they did.
 
This "democratic deficit" was one of a number of important issues Cameron failed to mention in Edinburgh today. But why would he? Before it became apparent that the union was genuinely under threat, the Tory leader had shown little interest in -- and therefore developed little understanding of -- Scotland and Scottish affairs. That absence of understanding -- on full display earlier -- will do the unionists no favours as the 2014 vote draws closer. Don't be surprised if Salmond is already busy trying to arrange the next the prime ministerial visit.
 

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Jeremy Corbyn's opponents are going down a blind alley on tuition fees

The electoral pool they are fishing in is shallow – perhaps even non-existent. 

The press and Labour’s political opponents are hammering Jeremy Corbyn over his party's pledge/ambition/cruel lie to win an election (delete depending on your preference) to not only abolish tuition fees for new students, but to write off the existing debts of those who have already graduated.

Labour has conceded (or restated, again, depending on your preference) that this is merely an “ambition” – that the party had not pledged to wipe out existing tuition fee debt but merely to scrap fees.

The party’s manifesto and the accompanying costings document only included a commitment to scrap the fees of students already in the system. What the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are claiming as a pledge is the following remark, made by Jeremy Corbyn in his Q&A with NME readers:

“First of all, we want to get rid of student fees altogether. We’ll do it as soon as we get in, and we’ll then introduce legislation to ensure that any student going from the 2017-18 academic year will not pay fees. They will pay them, but we’ll rebate them when we’ve got the legislation through – that’s fundamentally the principle behind it. Yes, there is a block of those that currently have a massive debt, and I’m looking at ways that we could reduce that, ameliorate that, lengthen the period of paying it off, or some other means of reducing that debt burden. I don’t have the simple answer for it at this stage – I don’t think anybody would expect me to, because this election was called unexpectedly; we had two weeks to prepare all of this – but I’m very well aware of that problem. And I don’t see why those that had the historical misfortune to be at university during the £9,000 period should be burdened excessively compared to those that went before or those that come after. I will deal with it.”

Is this a promise, an aspiration or a target? The answer probably depends on how you feel about Jeremy Corbyn or fees policy in general. (My reading, for what it’s worth, is that the full quote looks much more like an objective than a promise to my eyes but that the alternative explanation is fair enough, too.)

The more interesting question is whether or not there is an electoral prize to be had, whether from the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats, for hammering Labour on this topic. On that one the answer is open and shut: there really isn’t one.

Why not? Because the evidence is clear: that pledging to abolish tuition fees largely moves two groups of voters: students who have yet to graduate and actually start paying back the fees, and their parents and grandparents, who are worried about the debt burden.

There is not a large caucus of fee-paying graduates – that is, people who have graduated and are earning enough to start paying back their tuition fees – who are opposed to the system. (We don’t have enough evidence but my expectation is that the parents of people who have already graduated are also less fussed. They can see that their children are not crippled by tuition fee debt, which forms a negligible part of a graduate’s tax and living expenses, as opposed to parents who are expecting a worrying future for their children who have yet to graduate.)

Put simply, there isn’t a large group of people aged 21 or above voting for Corbyn who are that concerned about a debt write-off. Of those that are, they tend to have an ideological stance on the value of a higher education system paid for out of general taxation – a stance that makes it much harder for the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats to peel those votes off.

The whole thing is a bit of a blind alley for the parties of the centre and right. The Tory difficulty at this election wasn’t that they did badly among 18-21s, though they did do exceptionally badly. With the exception of the wave year of 1983, they have always tended to do badly with this group. Their problem is that they are doing badly with 30-45s, usually the time in life that some younger Labour voters begin to vote Conservative, largely but not exclusively because they have tended to get on the property ladder.

Nowadays of course, that cohort, particularly in the south of England, is not getting on the property ladder and as a result is not turning blue as it ages. And that’s both a bigger worry and a more lucrative electoral target for Labour’s opponents than litigating an NME interview.

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.