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of the union in Edinburgh this afternoon, the Scottish National Party had already dismissed it as "threadbare and outdated".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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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.