If Cameron really wants Scotland to stay in the UK, he should ease on austerity

One of the few factors that could tilt the odds in Alex Salmond's favour is the prospect of permanent cuts under a Conservative-led government.

Since the Tories have been almost entirely expelled from Scotland (with just one surviving MP), there will be some who argue that the best thing David Cameron can do during the independence debate is to remain as quiet as possible. But as the prime minister of the United Kingdom and the leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party (someone, in other words, with a bigger stake than most in the Union enduring), it would be odd if he did not share his thoughts on the subject from time to time. 

Today, with seven months to go until the vote, he will make his most notable intervention yet, delivering a speech on the case for the UK at the symbolic location of the Olympic Park. But rather than lecturing the Scots on the dangers of independence, Cameron has smartly chosen to address his speech "to the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland". While emphasising again that the decision is one for Scots alone (having consistently rejected calls for a UK-wide referendum), he will rightly note: "[T]hough only four million people can vote in this referendum, all 63 million of us are profoundly affected.

"There are 63 million of us who could wake up on September 19th in a different country, with a different future ahead of it...We would be deeply diminished without Scotland. This matters to all our futures. And everyone in the UK can have a voice in this debate."

He will add: "So to everyone in England, Wales and Northern Ireland – everyone, like me, who cares about the United Kingdom – I want to say this: you don't have a vote, but you do have a voice. Those voting are our friends, neighbours and family.

"You do have an influence. Let the message ring out, from Manchester to Motherwell, from Pembrokeshire to Perth, from Belfast to Bute, from us to the people of Scotland – let the message be this: We want you to stay."

Fortunately for Cameron, unlike in the past, when polls have suggested that the rest of the UK would be happy to see the back of the Scots, the most recent survey shows that the majority of the public are with him. A YouGov poll earlier this week showed that 54 per cent of English and Welsh voters oppose Scottish independence with just 24 per cent in favour. And, of course, while the polls have narrowed in the last month, the Scots themselves continue to reject secession by a comfortable margin. A YouGov survey published today puts support for independence at 34 per cent with 52 per cent opposed. Even a campaigner as formidable as Alex Salmond will struggle to overturn that lead. 

But the uncomfortable truth for Cameron is that one of the few factors that could tilt the odds in Salmond's favour is the prospect of another Conservative-led government after 2015. A Survation poll last week found that support for independence increases by three points (from 32 to 35 per cent) and that opposition falls by three (from 52 to 49 per cent) when Scots are asked how will they vote if they think the Tories will win the next election. Asked how they would vote if they thought the Tories would remain in power for up to 15 years, the gap narrows to just nine points (47-38). 

While Cameron can hardly be expected to give up on winning the next election, he should consider what he can do to make a Tory future more palatable to the Scots. More than anything, he should avoid repeating his recent promise of permanent austerity, a line that was a political gift to the nationalists. In that speech, at the Lord Mayor's banquet, he declared: "We are sticking to the task. But that doesn't just mean making difficult decisions on public spending. It also means something more profound. It means building a leaner, more efficient state. We need to do more with less. Not just now, but permanently."

After introducing the bedroom tax while simultaneously reducing the top rate of tax, it may be too late for Cameron to return to the one nation rhetoric of his first year as Prime Minister when he said: "I didn't come into politics to make cuts. Neither did Nick Clegg. But in the end politics is about national interest, not personal political agendas. We're tackling the deficit because we have to – not out of some ideological zeal. This is a government led by people with a practical desire to sort out this country's problems, not by ideology."

But if he can yet offer a vision beyond austerity, complete with detoxifying measures such as raising the minimum wage, he will help to ensure that there is no way back for Salmond. 

P.S. Alex Salmond will be delivering the New Statesman lecture on "Scotland’s Future in Scotland’s Hands" on 4 March at 6:30pm in London. Tickets can be purchased here

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

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

Inside a shaken city: "I just want to be anywhere that’s not Manchester”

The morning after the bombing of the Manchester Arena has left the city's residents jumpy.

On Tuesday morning, the streets in Manchester city centre were eerily silent.

The commuter hub of Victoria Station - which backs onto the arena - was closed as police combed the area for clues, and despite Mayor Andy Burnham’s line of "business as usual", it looked like people were staying away.

Manchester Arena is the second largest indoor concert venue in Europe. With a capacity crowd of 18,000, on Monday night the venue was packed with young people from around the country - at least 22 of whom will never come home. At around 10.33pm, a suicide bomber detonated his device near the exit. Among the dead was an eight-year-old girl. Many more victims remain in hospital. 

Those Mancunians who were not alerted by the sirens woke to the news of their city's worst terrorist attack. Still, as the day went on, the city’s hubbub soon returned and, by lunchtime, there were shoppers and workers milling around Exchange Square and the town hall.

Tourists snapped images of the Albert Square building in the sunshine, and some even asked police for photographs like any other day.

But throughout the morning there were rumours and speculation about further incidents - the Arndale Centre was closed for a period after 11.40am while swathes of police descended, shutting off the main city centre thoroughfare of Market Street.

Corporation Street - closed off at Exchange Square - was at the centre of the city’s IRA blast. A postbox which survived the 1996 bombing stood in the foreground while officers stood guard, police tape fluttering around cordoned-off spaces.

It’s true that the streets of Manchester have known horror before, but not like this.

I spoke to students Beth and Melissa who were in the bustling centre when they saw people running from two different directions.

They vanished and ducked into River Island, when an alert came over the tannoy, and a staff member herded them through the back door onto the street.

“There were so many police stood outside the Arndale, it was so frightening,” Melissa told me.

“We thought it will be fine, it’ll be safe after last night. There were police everywhere walking in, and we felt like it would be fine.”

Beth said that they had planned a day of shopping, and weren’t put off by the attack.

“We heard about the arena this morning but we decided to come into the city, we were watching it all these morning, but you can’t let this stop you.”

They remembered the 1996 Arndale bombing, but added: “we were too young to really understand”.

And even now they’re older, they still did not really understand what had happened to the city.

“Theres nowhere to go, where’s safe? I just want to go home,” Melissa said. “I just want to be anywhere that’s not Manchester.”

Manchester has seen this sort of thing before - but so long ago that the stunned city dwellers are at a loss. In a city which feels under siege, no one is quite sure how anyone can keep us safe from an unknown threat

“We saw armed police on the streets - there were loads just then," Melissa said. "I trust them to keep us safe.”

But other observers were less comforted by the sign of firearms.

Ben, who I encountered standing outside an office block on Corporation Street watching the police, was not too forthcoming, except to say “They don’t know what they’re looking for, do they?” as I passed.

The spirit of the city is often invoked, and ahead of a vigil tonight in Albert Square, there will be solidarity and strength from the capital of the North.

But the community values which Mancunians hold dear are shaken to the core by what has happened here.

0800 7318496