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of the union in Edinburgh this afternoon, the Scottish National Party had already dismissed it as "threadbare and outdated".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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Where Labour has no chance, hold your nose and vote Lib Dem

May's gamble, MacKenzie's obsession and Wisden obituaries - Peter Wilby's First Thoughts.

In 2007 Gordon Brown allowed rumours to circulate that he would call an early general election for the spring of 2008. When he failed to do so, he was considered a coward and a ditherer and never recovered. Theresa May has tried a different strategy. After firmly denying that she would call an early election and killing off speculation about one, she suddenly announced an election after all. Will this work better for her than the opposite worked for Brown?

The Prime Minister risks being seen as a liar and an opportunist. Her demand for “unity” at Westminster is alarming, because it suggests that there is no role for opposition parties on the most important issue of the day. If Labour and the Lib Dems are smart enough to co-operate sufficiently to rally the country against what looks like an attempt to instal an authoritarian, right-wing Tory regime, May, even if she wins the election, could find herself weakened, not strengthened. I never thought I would write this but, in constituencies where Labour has no chance, its supporters should hold their noses and vote Lib Dem.

Taken for granted

I wonder if May, before she took her decision, looked at the precedents of prime ministers who called unnecessary elections when they already had comfortable parliamentary majorities. In 1974, after three and a half years in office, Edward Heath, with a Tory majority of 30, called a “Who runs Britain?” election during a prolonged dispute with the miners. He lost. In 1923, Stanley Baldwin, a new Tory leader sitting on a majority of 75 obtained by his predecessor just a year earlier, called an election because he wished to introduce tariffs, an issue strikingly similar to the one raised by Brexit. He also lost. The lesson, I think (and hope), is that prime ministers take the electorate for granted at their peril.

China’s long game

Commentators compare the crisis ­involving North Korea and the US with the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. It doesn’t feel that way to me. For several days that year, nuclear war seemed, to my 17-year-old mind, all but inevitable. I went to the cinema one afternoon and felt surprise when I emerged three hours later to find the world – or, at least, the city of Leicester – going about its business as normal. Two nuclear powers were in direct confrontation. The US threatened to invade communist Cuba to remove Soviet missiles and blockaded the island to prevent deliveries of more weapons. Soviet ships sailed towards the US navy. It wasn’t easy to imagine a compromise, or who would broker one. Nobody doubted that the two sides’ weapons would work. The Soviet Union had carried out nearly 200 nuclear tests. North Korea has claimed just five.

For all the talk of intercontinental missiles, North Korea at present isn’t a credible threat to anybody except possibly its neighbours, and certainly not to the US or Britain. It is in no sense a geopolitical or economic rival to the US. Donald Trump, who, like everybody else, finds the Middle East infernally complicated, is looking for an easy, short-term victory. The Chinese will probably arrange one for him. With 3,500 years of civilisation behind them, they are accustomed to playing the long game.

Mussel pains

Whenever I read Kelvin MacKenzie’s columns in the Sun, I find him complaining about the size of mussels served by the Loch Fyne chain, a subject on which he happens to be right, though one wonders why he doesn’t just order something else. Otherwise, he writes badly and unfunnily, often aiming abuse at vulnerable people such as benefit claimants. It’s a new departure, however, to insult someone because they were on the receiving end of what MacKenzie calls “a nasty right-hander”, apparently unprovoked, in a Liverpool nightclub. He called the victim, the Everton and England footballer Ross Barkley, who has a Nigerian grandfather, “one of our dimmest footballers” and likened him to “a gorilla at the zoo”.
The paper has suspended MacKenzie, a former Sun editor, and Merseyside Police is investigating him for racism, though he claims he didn’t know of Barkley’s ancestry.

Several commentators express amazement that Sun editors allowed such tripe to be published. It was not, I think, a mistake. Britain has no equivalent of America’s successful alt-right Breitbart website, disruptively flinging insults at all and sundry and testing the boundaries of what it calls “political correctness”, because our alt right is already established in the Sun, Express and Mail. To defend their position, those papers will continue to be as nasty as it takes.

Over and out

Easter is the time to read the cricket annual Wisden and, as usual, I turn first to the obituaries. Unlike newspaper obituaries, they record failures as well as successes – those who managed just a few undistinguished performances in first-class cricket and, most poignantly, some who promised much but died early. We learn of a 22-year-old Indian who, during demonstrations against the alleged molestation of a schoolgirl, was shot dead by police and whose grieving mother (invoking the name of one of India’s greatest batsmen) cried, “Bring my Gavaskar back!” In England, two young men drowned, having played one first-class match each, and a 22-year-old Sussex fast bowler, described as “roguish” and “enormously popular”, fell off a roof while celebrating New Year with friends in Scotland. In South Africa, a young batsman was among five municipal employees killed when their truck crashed; the local mayor fled the funeral as his workmates “chanted menacingly” about unpaid wages.

Among the better-known deaths is that of Martin Crowe, probably New Zealand’s best batsman. In a Test match, he once got out on 299 and reckoned the near-miss contributed to the cancer that killed him at 53. “It tore at me like a vulture pecking dead flesh,” he said. Cricket can do that kind of thing to you. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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