David Cameron and Alex Salmond after the Scottish independence referendum deal was agreed in October 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

How Salmond outplayed Cameron in the Scottish referendum talks

The timing of the vote, the wording of the question, and allowing 16-17-year-olds to vote. 

When David Cameron and Alex Salmond signed the deal in October 2012 allowing the Scottish parliament to stage a legally binding referendum on independence, the consensus was that Cameron had "outplayed" the First Minister. After calling the SNP leader's bluff in January 2012, the PM had denied him the second question he wanted on devo max. 

I wrote at the time that this view was mistaken and that Salmond was "the winner" from the agreement. That this was the case is even clearer now, with all of the concessions the First Minister secured working to his advantage. 

Here are the three ways in which he outmanoeuvred Cameron. 

1. The timing of the vote: 2014, rather than 2013

The UK government originally insisted that it would only give Scotland the right to hold a binding referendum (a power constitutionally reserved to Westminster) if it was staged by September 2013. But this demand was dropped in return for Salmond agreeing to a one question vote. The result was that the nationalists were gifted the commodity they needed most: time. Having begun as the underdogs, they have had an extra year to build a grassroots campaign capable of winning over the undecided and to exploit the anger over measures such as the bedroom tax and other benefit cuts (most of which were only introduced in April 2013). 

2. The wording of the question

The second key power that Cameron conceded to Salmond was the right to determine the wording of the question. While the First Minister abandoned his first choice - the biased "Do you agree that Scotland should become an independent country?" - on the recommendation of the Electoral Commission, he was still able to amend it to "Should Scotland be an independent country?" This wording allowed Salmond to lead the "Yes" campaign and to project the nationalists as the positive force in the campaign (while also avoiding any reference to the UK). Had Cameron played hardball and forced Salmond to accept a wording such as "Should Scotland remain part of the United Kingdom?" it could have been Alistair Darling leading the "Yes" campaign.  

3. Allowing 16-17-year-olds to vote 

Unlike in UK and Scottish parliamentary elections, Cameron reluctantly agreed to allow Salmond to extend the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds. The SNP's leader's motives were not hard to discern. Suspicious of the establishment and with fewer historic ties to the Union, these first-time voters were always likely to be susceptible to nationalism. His prediction has been fulfilled as recent polls have shown the young to be one of the most pro-independence groups. Last weekend's YouGov poll showed 60 per cent of 16-24-year-olds favour independence compared to 51 per cent of the rest of the population. In a referendum as tight as this one, the votes of 16-17-year-olds could alone determine the outcome. 

And did Cameron really win on devo max?

Cameron's success in forcing Salmond to agree to a one-question referendum (denying him the consolation prize of devo max) was hailed as his biggest negotiating coup. But few now argue that this remains the case. With a clear majority in Scotland for further devolution, Westminster has been forced to offer new powers in any case, but has struggled to overcome public scepticism of its promises. Had devo max, or something close to it, been on the ballot paper to begin with, it would have had no such problem. While telling voters to say "No" to independence, it could have also told them to say "Yes" to a reformed Union. The irony is that Salmond's failure may yet gift him victory, as voters agree that independence is the only way to guarantee real change. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496