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.

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.