David Cameron has dusted off the 1974 playbook

In February 1974, the-then Conservative Prime Minister Ted Heath famously went to the country on the question of ‘who governs Britain?’ In 2015 David Cameron appears to be fighting a campaign on the question of ‘who governs England.’ 

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This week has seen the latest weapon deployed by the Conservative Party in their bid to break the currently deadlocked polls and secure, if not victory, a significant enough lead over Labour to govern either as a minority or in a second coalition. John Major’s intervention is significant on two grounds, the first being that he’s considered an electoral weapon in the first place. This seems to be rooted in the Tories fetishisation of the 1992 General Election, when the Conservatives won a surprise, late election victory against the perceived wisdom of pundits, experts and, most famously, the expert polls. However, Major’s intervention is also significant because it encapsulates the increasingly post-Unionist mindset of English Conservatism.  

Major’s warning that a deal between Labour and the SNP would result in a “government held to ransom” that would squeeze English taxpayers is put one part of a Tory campaign that is increasingly English nationalist in tone, an English “project fear” aimed at securing late breakers, scared at the prospect of being governed by a minority Labour Government beholden to the SNP, for the Conservative Party in the run-up to polling day. Hence, Tory campaign posters to date have included a miniaturised Ed Miliband comfortably ensconced the pockets of  Alex Salmond  and Nicola Sturgeon (an image that is reminiscent of Spitting Image’s treatment of the ‘Two Davids’ of the SDP-Liberal alliance) and more recently of Nicola Sturgeon as puppet master pulling the strings of the Labour leader.  

Barely a day now passes without warnings about the impending ‘Tartan peril’ that might befall the British public should the SNP have a role in the governance of the United Kingdom.  A taste of this focus on the SNP’s threat came from the Prime Minister last Sunday on the Marr programme, with his claim that “This would be the first time in our history that a group of nationalists from one part of our country would be involved in altering the direction of our country and I think that is a frightening prospect” (the Prime Minister appears to be seemingly oblivious to the role played by the Irish Parliamentary Party in the late-Nineteenth and early-Twentieth century).

This relentless focus has, unsurprisingly, been condemned by the Labour Party, which has charged the Conservatives with hyping up the SNP threat as a means to win over English voters. The Scottish Labour leader, Jim Murphy, for example, took to twitter to accuse David Cameron of having “demeaned the Office of Prime Minister of the United Kingdom to become a desperate cheerleader for the SNP.”  However, while Murphy’s attack, though unusually strident, may be dismissed by Cameron as an act of base partisanship, such a charge cannot be levelled at voices such as Alex Massie and Lord Forsyth who have also rounded on Tory HQ’s strategy. Massie, an increasing rare (it seems) voice of reason among Unionists, for example, has lambasted Tory HQ’s strategy,  accusing the party’s top brass of being  so desperate to prevent Miliband entering Number 10 that they “are prepared to risk the future of the United Kingdom.” Similarly, Lord Forsyth, the last Conservative to hold the office of Secretary of State for Scotland, 1995-1997, has joined this criticism, accusing his party of playing a  “short term and dangerous” game with the Union that risks polarising Scotland against England.

These charges of English nationalism and of threatening the stability of the Union for partisan advantage look particularly apt when one considers the Prime Minister’s recent pledge that a future Conservative administration would issue a ‘report card’ on the activities of the Scottish Government. Under this system, what Cameron has called the ‘Carlisle principle’, an as of-yet unexplained “mechanism” would be put in place “to make sure the rest of the country doesn’t lose out from Scottish devolution.” While the operation of such a principle and mechanism remains rather ambiguous, there is already speculation that it could take the form of compensatory action being taken against the Scottish Government. That Wales is mentioned only in passing by the Prime Minister, despite the fact that it shares a far more porous border with England, leaves the impression that this is a policy drafted purely with English grievances against Scottish devolution in mind.  

Quite simply, it is a policy that smacks of the politics of grievance and, if implemented, would be an open invitation to turf wars between Scotland and English regions and, quite possibly, for Scottish independence.  That this policy was unveiled by the Prime Minister on the same day as Nigel Farage’s accused his rivals of “appeasement” over Scotland and the SNP, declaring that “only UKIP will stand up for the interests of English voters”, only fuels the impression that the Conservative party is more interested on claiming the mantle of being the champion of England, rather than the United Kingdom.

Of course there are good political and electoral reasons for the Conservative Party to appeal to English voters. It is, after all, a party whose parliamentary representation is overwhelmingly dependent on England, or rather the part of England that lies below the Wash. As such, this campaign is perhaps in part an inevitable consequence of the electoral retrenchment of the Conservative Party.

With limited representation in Wales and endangered status in Scotland, it can be of little surprise that English nationalism has been an increasing undercurrent in the Conservative Party in the years since its catastrophic defeat in 1997 and, in particular, the introduction of devolution to Scotland and Wales in 1999. It now seems that this has begun to overspill into the party’s leadership, as short-term fears about holding onto English voters trump considerations about the long term good of the Union. Indeed, while the Conservative Party’s full title may still be the Conservative and Unionist Party, with every passing day the party in England looks ever more post-Unionist in nature, formally supportive of Union, yet opposed to the democratic consequences of Scotland’s continued role in the United Kingdom.

In February 1974, the-then Conservative Prime Minister Ted Heath famously went to the country on the question of ‘who governs Britain?’ In 2015 David Cameron appears to be fighting a campaign on the question of ‘who governs England.’  Whither the Union, whither Conservative Unionism?