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of the union in Edinburgh this afternoon, the Scottish National Party had already dismissed it as "threadbare and outdated".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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The Conservative-DUP deal is great news for the DUP, but bad news for Theresa May

The DUP has secured a 10 per cent increase in Northern Ireland's budget in return for propping up the Prime Minister.

Well, that’s that then. Theresa May has reached an accord with the Democratic Unionist Party to keep herself in office. Among the items: the triple lock on pensions will remain in place, and the winter fuel allowance will not be means-tested across the United Kingdom. In addition, the DUP have bagged an extra £1bn of spending for Northern Ireland, which will go on schools, hospitals and roads. That’s more than a five per cent increase in Northern Ireland’s budget, which in 2016-7 was just £9.8bn.

The most politically significant item will be the extension of the military covenant – the government’s agreement to look after veterans of war and their families – to Northern Ireland. Although the price tag is small, extending priority access to healthcare to veterans is particularly contentious in Northern Ireland, where they have served not just overseas but in Northern Ireland itself. Sensitivities about the role of the Armed Forces in the Troubles were why the Labour government of Tony Blair did not include Northern Ireland in the covenant in 2000, when elements of it were first codified.

It gives an opportunity for the SNP…

Gina Miller, whose court judgement successfully forced the government into holding a vote on triggering Article 50, has claimed that an increase in spending in Northern Ireland will automatically entail spending increases in Wales and Scotland thanks to the Barnett formula. This allocates funding for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland based on spending in England or on GB-wide schemes.

However, this is incorrect. The Barnett formula has no legal force, and, in any case, is calculated using England as a baseline. However, that won’t stop the SNP MPs making political hay with the issue, particularly as “the Vow” – the last minute promise by the three Unionist party leaders during the 2014 independence referendum – promised to codify the formula. They will argue this breaks the spirit, if not the letter of the vow. 

…and Welsh Labour

However, the SNP will have a direct opponent in Wales. The Welsh Labour party has long argued that the Barnett formula, devised in 1978, gives too little to Wales. They will take the accord with Northern Ireland as an opportunity to argue that the formula should be ripped up and renegotiated.

It risks toxifying the Tories further

The DUP’s socially conservative positions, though they put them on the same side as their voters, are anathema to many voters in England, Scotland and Wales. Although the DUP’s positions on abortion and equal marriage will not be brought to bear on rUK, the association could leave a bad taste in the mouth for voters considering a Conservative vote next time. Added to that, the bumper increase in spending in Northern Ireland will make it even harder to win support for continuing cuts in the rest of the United Kingdom.

All of which is moot if the Conservatives U-Turn on austerity

Of course, all of these problems will fade if the Conservatives further loosen their deficit target, as they did last year. Turning on the spending taps in England, Scotland and Wales is probably their last, best chance of turning around the grim political picture.

It’s a remarkable coup for Arlene Foster

The agreement, which ticks a number of boxes for the DUP, caps off an astonishing reversal of fortunes for the DUP’s leader, Arlene Foster. The significant increase in spending in Northern Ireland – equivalent to the budget of the entirety of the United Kingdom going up by £70bn over two years  – is only the biggest ticket item. The extension of the military covenant to Northern Ireland appeals to two longstanding aims of the DUP. The first is to end “Northern Ireland exceptionalism” wherever possible, and the second is the red meat to their voters in offering better treatment to veterans.

It feels like a lifetime ago when you remember that in March 2017, Foster was a weakened figure having led the DUP into its worst election result since the creation of the devolved assembly at Stormont.

The election result, in which the DUP took the lion’s share of Westminster seats in Northern Ireland, is part of that. But so too are the series of canny moves made by Foster in the aftermath of her March disappointment. By attending Martin McGuinness’s funeral and striking a more consensual note on some issues, she has helped shed some of the blame for the collapse of power-sharing, and proven herself to be a tricky negotiator.

Conservatives are hoping it will be plain sailing for them, and the DUP from now on should take note. 

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.

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