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Why the No campaign should encourage Cameron to debate Salmond

The Prime Minister's persistent refusal to debate Salmond will become a running sore and an increasingly dominant aspect of the campaign.

Scottish First Minister and SNP leader Alex Salmond with David Cameron at the men's Wimbledon final last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

As the well-worn Westminster joke goes, there are more pandas in Scotland than there are Conservative MPs. It is a truism to note that those north of the border are not naturally predisposed to the Conservative Party. Despite achieving nigh on 40% of the vote at the last general election in England, the Conservatives sank to less than 17% in Scotland, returning the lone David Mundell as the dash of blue in the otherwise crimson electoral map. This sobering electoral arithmetic no doubt informed David Cameron’s understated admission at Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday that his appeal "does not stretch to all people in Scotland". It is seemingly this, and the fact that he is very much an Englishman, that is driving his near-absence from the No campaign as Scotland finally votes on its independence this September.

It is easy to see the logic behind the decision. Salmond is one of the most accomplished and gifted politicians of his generation. His mandate in Scotland is near-absolute, Cameron’s none-existent. He has crushed a once proud and omnipotent Scottish Labour party and commanded political popularity far exceeding his nearest rival for six years now. The SNP are one of the few political parties in government with a clear and retained polling lead. And even if they lose the referendum, it is unfathomable that the SNP will not be in government after the next set of Scottish elections in 2016 – surpassing Labour’s total years of governance at Holyrood.

It is always tempting to cast Salmond as the man with all the cards in his hand. Tempting, in part, because both Salmond and the media have long-fuelled the myth of Scotland’s first minister as an irresistible force leading a movement whose time, as the party’s slogan says, has come. But Alex Salmond does not make Scottish independence inevitable. Support for the SNP has never readily translated into support for independence. His political narcissism, always prevalent, is beginning to boil over. The customary cocky brinkmanship will begin to grate if the electorate sense he is overdoing the performance in what is so patently a serious moment. Behind the façade, Salmond has always understood that most Scots are sceptical about independence – hence his latest attempts to bait the Prime Minister into debating him. It is a challenge the Better Together campaign should readily take up.

Cameron’s persistent refusal to debate Salmond will become a running sore and an increasingly dominant aspect of the campaign. It will be cited at every juncture by every advocate of independence and, if the polls narrow, which they surely will, Cameron’s absence will become simply untenable. What could be more apt than the leader of Scotland, making the case for independence, and the leader of the UK, defending its continued existence, as the centrepiece of this referendum campaign? 

Salmond’s predictable sneering at Cameron’s refusal, with as many references to his Conservative, English heritage as possible, should not distract from Cameron’s achievement. Cameron was the leader who, in early 2012, finally broke out from the corner into which Salmond had long pinned the main party leaders by forcing the SNP leader to concede the date and conditions on which the referendum was set. This was, somewhat predictably, met with a howl of protest from Salmond who confidently declared Cameron’s meddling would see increased support for independence. Then, as now, the polls remain stubbornly against the SNP leader. Salmond was always content on letting the referendum date lapse ever longer into the future, hoping for the polls to change and praying for an outright Conservative victory at the 2015 general election.

For years, Salmond has been able to dictate the political debate north of the border with past and present opposition leaders who were either unable or simply unwilling to take him on at his own game. The emerging candidate to do just that is the Prime Minister, David Cameron, even if he does not yet realise it himself. He is clearly a competent performer on television and to commit to a debate would, at a stroke, deny Salmond a key line of attack. As long as Cameron is humble, not regal, and clear in his intentions that this is about his determination to secure the Union and not for electoral prospects, for he has none, then the Prime Minister has the ability to rise above Salmond’s desperate attempt to frame the vote as that of Scotland versus the Tories. Scottish voters will see the difference, and with it may well grant a rare victory for long-held foe.