Salmond: set England free

With his party ahead in the polls, the leader of the SNP says independence would serve UK interests

The tower at the Glasgow Science Centre is Scotland's tallest structure: millennial modernism on a quayside where Clyde-built ships once traded from the second city of the British empire. It was meant to spin on its base, but has been plagued by design problems. As the Scottish Nationalists gathered for their conference next door, their hopes of being photo graphed symbolically atop the structure were thwarted. It had been closed due to bitter, blustery squalls.

So it goes with devolution. The 21st-century modernisation of the British constitution is not working as devised. It was hobbled by overambitious, over-budget architecture at its home in Holyrood. And Labour has to throw all the bluster and squalls that it can muster if it is to see off the Nationalist threat. Although the 129 MSPs elected four years ago represent eight parties, with a voting system designed to deny any of them a majority, this is a Labour-SNP tussle. The stakes could be highest for Gordon Brown, for whom the timing is awkward. On 3 May, the process of takeover from Tony Blair must surely begin, yet an SNP breakthrough would give the Chancellor a constitutional crisis in his backyard, leaving doubts that he could continue to sit in the Commons if his Fife constituency becomes part of a foreign country.

Alex Salmond has stressed in recent weeks that he wants to work with Brown. The SNP leader wants to reassure people that his party, if it took power, would be sensible and credible, working with Downing Street on national strategies for tackling poverty and renewable energy. But in his conference speech, Salmond also served notice of confrontation. He would, he said, fight against more nuclear-armed submarines on the Clyde; he wants a referendum on independence before the 2011 election; and in his first 100 days, he would open negotiations on taking control of North Sea oil and gas. The discussion could be brief between the Nationalists' unstoppable force and the Chancellor's immovable object.

But haven't we heard this before from the great chieftain o' the Pictish people? Yes, we have. Salmond has puffed himself up at four elections, and been deflated. Aged 52, the oil economist has been around for a long while. But this time, polls show that the threat to Labour looks serious. Salmond has set out to counter the negatives that lost previous elections. He has embraced corporate tax cuts, winning support and money from big names in the business world. As Blair arrived in Edinburgh on a brief campaigning trip, the SNP unveiled a gold-plated endorsement from the man who built the Royal Bank of Scotland into the world's fifth-biggest bank. The next day, the party received a £500,000 donation from Brian Souter, the boss at Stagecoach buses who helped fund the campaign against the repeal of Section 28.

Salmond, defining himself as a social democrat, highlights the "arc of prosperity" around Scotland: Ireland's low tax and Celtic tiger growth, Norway's vast trust fund built on oil wealth, and Iceland's control over fisheries (for constituency reasons, Salmond takes haddock very seriously). Whether in or out of Europe, small neighbours are proving nimble and adept in the globalising economy. The best response so far from Labour is to complain about the price of beer in Oslo and the cost of a consultation with a Galway GP.

Labour has struggled to find a response that works. Both Blair and Brown told Jack McConnell, Scotland's First Min ister, to talk up the cost and risk of breaking up Britain. It may yet work. It has before. But, for now, it looks tired and occasionally silly. Labour has implied that independent Scots would be cut off from visiting or phoning their relatives in England, business and academic networks would be ripped up, border guards would be stationed at Berwick, and an independent Scotland would be more vulnerable to attack by al-Qaeda. More effective could be Labour's economic claims. It argues that Scotland is so heavily subsidised by England that it couldn't possibly go it alone. An £11bn "black hole" translates to an extra tax bill of over £5,000 for the average household.

Salmond has to leave the weekly leaders' joust at Holyrood to his deputy and protégée, Nicola Sturgeon, because he leads his party from Westminster and from the BBC studio in Aberdeen, hoping to oust a Liberal Democrat from her seat just north of there in six weeks. It is a curious position for the man hoping for Scotland's independence to be in. As Salmond and I discuss the challenges ahead, he is just as keen to target hearts and minds in England as he makes the case for English independence. "A national parliament is rather a good idea. It's normal," he says. "I don't suppose many people in England doubted they were self-governing, in that the distinction between English and British gov ernment was not clear. But there have been a lot of issues making people in England wonder - top-up fees, foundation hospitals, the probation service recently - issues where interfering Scots want to poke their noses in English affairs, just as Margaret Thatcher used to poke her nose in Scottish domestic affairs." Deeply un popular in Scotland, Thatcher is credited with doing most to further the cause of devolution. Salmond says Blair's wars and nuclear missiles are doing the same for independence.

"The negative interpretation of the English view of Scottish independence is not borne out," says Salmond, who claims to get an even warmer reception in England than north of the Tweed. "It may sometimes be heard in a bar in the Home Counties, but it's not my general experience. I find most people in England find the idea of independence entirely reasonable. They're accepting and encouraging of people who stand up for themselves and articulate a powerful idea. That's part of the attraction of the English character." He also says: "The English . . . have respect for people who stand up for their own country and its own rights, and people who talk to them straight and honestly." He predicts amicable relations. "When Scotland becomes independent, England will lose a surly lodger and gain a good neighbour."

No end to EastEnders

Any arguments over the constitution arising from Scottish independence could be taken to an intergovernment body he wants to call the Council of the Isles, building on the institutions that sprang up with the Ulster peace process, and borrowing ideas from the Nordic Council. There would be co-operation on railways, renewables and energy grids. Nuclear weapons would be banished, but Scottish moors and moorings would still welcome English military training. "There would be a different configuration of the Scottish defence force, but would friendly powers be able to use Scottish territory for training and other things? Yes, just as the British army trains in many countries at the moment."

Plus, to reassure the voters: "They would still watch EastEnders. You'd want to make sure BBC Television is available in Scotland, as it is in Ireland at the moment. Obviously you'd want a Scottish broadcaster, and it might want to have shared relationships with the BBC in terms of programme-making. But broadcasting would be an area where there would be strong benefits from having a Scottish dimension."

First, a Salmond government would need to find enough Holyrood seats for a majority. The geographical distribution of votes left the SNP far behind Labour at the 2003 election, trailing 27 to 50, so there is a lot of catching up to do. Even if the SNP delivers on its current poll lead, it could still fall behind its main rival. Then there's coalition. Scottish Tories rule themselves out of "unprincipled" partnerships, but are cosying up to a potential Labour minority administration with a tough crime and drugs agenda. The Greens, pro-independence and with seven seats, eagerly want to be players.

Yet it is the Lib Dems who look the most likely coalition partner. Labour is irritated with them, and after eight years of sharing power, do they want to prop up Labour on its downward trajectory? Nicol Stephen, Lib Dem leader in Scotland, can agree with Salmond on more devolved powers, but rules out an independence referendum. Salmond is equally adamant that he won't do a deal without one. Past experience suggests they could, with some political contortions, agree to set up a commission, and punt their differences into the long grass.

As he surveys the constitutional tangle left by Blair, Brown will head north to park his tanks on the SNP lawn until 3 May. Does he have any new ideas? Not so far. But consider this: what if Brown called a referendum, with his choice of question and timing, splitting the Nationalists, and gambling on a No vote? For Labour in Scotland, these are worrying times, and they may call for extraordinary measures.

Douglas Fraser is Scottish political editor of the Herald

Scottish elections by numbers

129 number of MSPs

50 current number of Labour MSPs

25 current number of SNP MSPs

34% support in Scotland for the SNP in the latest ICM poll

29% support for Labour in the same poll

500,000 voters contacted by the SNP in telephone canvassing by early March

Research: Rebecca Bundhun

Scottish independence: key dates

1707 Act of Union dissolves the sovereign Scottish parliament

1967 SNP's Winnie Ewing wins watershed Hamilton by-election

1969 Crowther (later Kilbrandon) Commission set up to consider devolution 1974 The commission recommends devolution. SNP wins seven and 11 seats in two general elections

1978 Scotland Act provides for a Scottish Assembly, subject to a referendum

1 March 1979 Voters choose devolution, but the act cannot stand because they represent less than 40% of the electorate

11 September 1997 New Labour holds another devolution referendum. Result - a majority vote for a Scottish Parliament

19 November 1998 Scotland Act

6 May 1999 First election to the Scottish Parliament: Labour and Liberal Democrats form coalition government

1 July 1999 Power is formally transferred from Westminster

9 October 2004 Parliament building opens in Holyrood

Research: Sarah O'Connor

This article first appeared in the 26 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: Time to break free?

Picture: David Parkin
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The humbling of Theresa May

The Prime Minister has lost all authority. The Tories will remove her as soon as they feel the time is right.

Being politicians of unsentimental, ruthless realism, the Conservatives did not linger in the grief stage of their collective disaster after the general election. Disbelief, too, was commendably brief.

Currently, their priority is to impose some sort of order on themselves. This is the necessary prelude to the wholesale change that most see as the next phase in their attempt at recovery, which they all know is essential to their career prospects – and believe is vital to a country whose alternative prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn.

For that reason, talk of Theresa May enduring as Prime Minister until the end of the Brexit negotiations in two years’ time is the preserve of just a few wishful thinkers. Some sort of calm is being established but the party is far from settled or united; there is a widespread conviction that it cannot be so under the present leader.

Elements of the great change have been executed, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former advisers, will testify.

However, this is only beginning, as shown by the debate in the media about how long May can survive in Downing Street. There is dissatisfaction about elements of her recent reshuffle, but it is quieted because few believe that some of the more contentious appointments or reappointments will last more than a matter of months. Her colleagues are also alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP.

The climate in the party at the moment is one in which everything – jobs, policies and, of course, the leadership – will soon be up for grabs. Debate over “hard” and “soft” Brexits is illusory: anyone who wants to be Conservative leader will need to respect the view of the party in the country, which is that Britain must leave the single market and the customs union to regain control of trade policy and borders. That is one reason why the prospects of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, are being talked up.

Some of May’s MPs, for all their hard-mindedness about the future, speak of feeling “poleaxed” since the general election. Even before the result changed everything, there was dismay about the bad national campaign; but that, it was felt, could be discussed in a leisurely post-mortem.

Now, instead, it has undermined faith in May’s leadership and credibility. “The social care disaster was key to our defeat,” an MP told me. “It wasn’t just that the policy damaged our core vote, it was the amateurishness of the U-turn.” A more seasoned colleague noted that “it was the first election I’ve fought where we succeeded in pissing off every section of our core vote”.

The limited ministerial reshuffle was inevitable given May’s lack of authority, and summed up her untenability beyond the short term. Most of her few important changes were deeply ill judged: notably the sacking of the skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, and a rare Tory with a direct line to the working class; and the Brexit minister David Jones, whose job had hardly begun and whose boss, Davis, was not consulted.

George Bridges, another Brexit minister, who resigned, apparently did so because he felt May had undermined the government’s position in the negotiations so badly, by failing to win the election comprehensively, that he could not face going on.

Much has been made of how Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was marginalised and briefed against, yet reappointed. Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, suffered similarly. Conservative Central Office was largely shut out from the catastrophic campaign, though no one got round to briefing against McLoughlin, who kept his head down – unheard-of conduct by a party chairman in an election.

As a political force, Central Office is for now more or less impotent. It has lost the knack of arguing the case for Conservatism. MPs are increasingly worried that their party is so introspective that it just can’t deal with the way Corbyn is spinning his defeat. “An ugly mood is growing,” one said, “because militant leftism is going unchallenged.” That cannot change until May has gone and the party machine is revived and re-inspired.

***

Nobody in the party wants a general election: but most want a leadership election, and minds are concentrated on how to achieve the latter without precipitating the former. One angry and disillusioned ex-minister told me that “if there were an obvious candidate she’d be shitting herself. But most of us have realised Boris is a wanker, DD isn’t a great communicator and is a bit up himself, Hammond has no charisma, and Amber [Rudd] has a majority of 346.”

On Monday a group of senior ex-ministers met at Westminster to discuss next steps. It was agreed that, with the Brexit talks under way, the most important thing in the interests of restoring order was securing the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Then, May having done her duty and steadied the proverbial ship, the party would manage her dignified and calm evacuation from Downing Street.

Those who agree on this do not always agree on the timing. However, few can make the leap of imagination required to see her addressing the party conference in October, unless to say “Thank you and goodnight” and to initiate a leadership contest. Many would like her out long before then. The only reason they don’t want it this side of securing the Queen’s Speech is that the result, as one put it, would be “chaos”, with a leadership contest resembling “a circular firing squad”.

That metaphor is popular among Tories these days. Others use it to describe the ­apportioning of blame after the election. As well as Timothy and Hill, Lynton Crosby has sustained severe wounds that may prevent the Tories from automatically requesting his services again.

Following the Brexit referendum and Zac Goldsmith’s nasty campaign for the London mayoralty, Crosby has acquired the habit of losing. And then there was Ben Gummer, blamed not only for the social care debacle, but also for upsetting fishermen with a vaguely couched fisheries policy. These failings are becoming ancient history – and the future, not the past, is now the urgent matter – yet some Conservatives still seethe about them despite trying to move on.

“I haven’t heard anyone say she should stay – except Damian Green,” a former minister observed, referring to the new First Secretary of State. Green was at Oxford with May and seems to have earned his job because he is one of her rare friends in high politics. He is regarded as sharing her general lack of conviction.

Older activists recall how the party, in 1974, clung loyally to Ted Heath after he lost one election, and even after he lost a second. Now, deference is over. Most Tory activists, appalled by the handling of the campaign, want change. They would, however, like a contest: annoyed at not having been consulted last time, they intend not to be left silent again.

That view is largely reflected at Westminster, though a few MPs believe a coronation wouldn’t be a problem, “as we don’t want a public examination of the entrails for weeks on end when we need to be shown to be running the country effectively”. Most MPs disagree with that, seeing where a coronation got them last time.

With the summer recess coming up, at least the public’s attention would not be on Westminster if the contest took place mostly during that time: hence the feeling that, once the Queen’s Speech is dealt with, May should announce her intention to leave, in order to have a successor in place before the conference season. It is then up to the party to design a timetable that compresses the hustings between the final two candidates into as short a time as compatible with the democratic process, to get the new leader in place swiftly.

Some letters requesting a contest are said to have reached Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. One MP told me with great authority that there were eight; another, with equal certainty, said 12. Forty-eight are needed to trigger the procedure. However, engineering such a contest is not how most Tories would like to proceed. “She has had an international humiliation,” a former cabinet minister said, “and it is transparently ghastly for her. Then came the [Grenfell Tower] fire. There is no sense our rubbing it in. I suspect she knows she has to go. We admire her for staying around and clearing up the mess in a way Cameron didn’t. But she is a stopgap.”

MPs believe, with some justification, that the last thing most voters want is another general election, so caution is paramount. None doubts that the best outcome for all concerned would be for May to leave without being pushed.

Her tin-eared response to the Grenfell disaster shocked colleagues with its amateurishness and disconnection. “I’m sure she’s very upset by Grenfell,” someone who has known her since Oxford said. “But she is incapable of showing empathy. She has no bridge to the rest of the world other than Philip.” Another, referring to the controversial remark that torpedoed Andrea Leadsom’s leadership ambitions last year, said: “You would get shot for saying it, but not having had children hasn’t helped her when it comes to relating to people. Leadsom was right.”

***

May was quicker off the mark on Monday, issuing a statement condemning the appalling attack at Finsbury Park Mosque swiftly after it occurred, and going there shortly afterwards to meet community leaders. No one could fault her assurance that Muslims must enjoy the same protection under the law as everyone else, or the speed and sincerity with which it was made. She is learning what leadership entails, but too late.

Her administration has become unlucky. This happened to John Major, but, as in his case, the bad luck is partly down to bad decisions; and the bad luck that comes out of the blue simply piles in on top of everything else. Grenfell Tower, lethal and heartbreaking for its victims and their families, was merely more bad luck for the Prime Minister because of her slow-witted response and failure – presumably because shorn of her closest advisers – to do the right thing, and to do it quickly.

But then it turned out that her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had in his previous incarnation as a housing minister received a report on improving fire safety in tower blocks and done nothing about it. That is either more bad luck, or it shows May has dismal judgement in the quality of people she appoints to her close circle. Form suggests the latter.

The idea aired last weekend, that May had “ten days to prove herself”, was a minority view. For most of her colleagues it is too late. It was typical of Boris Johnson’s dwindling band of cheerleaders that they should broadcast a story supporting Davis as an “interim” leader: “interim” until Johnson’s credibility has recovered sufficiently for him to have another pop at the job he covets so much.

They also sought to create the impression that Davis is on manoeuvres, which he resolutely is not. Davis has been around long enough to know that if he wants to succeed May – and his friends believe he does – he cannot be seen to do anything to destabilise her further. It is a lesson lost on Johnson’s camp, whose tactics have damaged their man even more than he was already.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and a close ally of Davis, told the Guardian: “. . . it is simply untrue that he is doing anything other
than focusing on his incredibly important brief and giving loyal support to the Prime Minister. Anyone suggesting otherwise is freelancing.” That summed up the contempt Davis’s camp has for Johnson, and it will last long beyond any leadership race.

There is a sense that, in the present febrile climate, whoever is the next leader must be highly experienced. Davis qualifies; so does Hammond, who before his present job was foreign secretary and defence secretary, and who has belatedly displayed a mind of his own since May was hobbled. Hugo Swire, a minister of state under Hammond in the Foreign Office, said of him: “He’s got bottom. He was very good to work for. He is an homme sérieux. I liked him very much and he would calm things down.”

But, as yet, there is no contest. Calls for calm have prevailed, not least thanks to Graham Brady’s steady stewardship of the 1922 Committee, and his success in convincing the more hot-headed of his colleagues to hold their fire. Yet MPs say the 1922 is not what it was 20 years ago: ministers have become used to taking it less seriously.

However, many MPs expect Brady, at a time of their choosing, to go to Downing Street and deliver the poison pill to Theresa May if she is slow to go. Some who know her fear she might take no notice. If she were to play it that way, her end would be unpleasant. As the old saying goes, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. Remarkably few of her colleagues want to go the hard way but, like everything else in the Tory party at the moment, that could change.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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