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15 November 2023

Can David Cameron make amends in Scotland?

For all his flaws and the fury from left and right, the new Foreign Secretary should risk a few trips north of the border.

By Chris Deerin

What does Scotland think of comeback king David Cameron

In 2015, I interviewed him at the Emirates Arena in Glasgow, which had been purpose-built for the previous year’s Commonwealth Games. As I left afterwards, police outriders had stopped the traffic to allow the then prime minister’s motorcade to pass. A man in a van rolled down his window and bellowed at a policeman, “Heh you! Why are we waitin’ here?” When I told him who the VIP was, he snarled “f**kin’ Tories!”

The jury, it might therefore be said, is out. And this was before Cameron called the Brexit referendum that saw the UK leave the European Union, despite Scotland voting for Remain by 62-38 per cent. As with most former PMs, there is much to be aggrieved about in his record.

But what does David Cameron think of Scotland? I always found him a man of genuine and deep unionist belief – like all of us, the 2014 independence referendum had led Cameron to think deeply about his national identity. As he told me during our interview, “What I love about our United Kingdom is that there are the common issues of identity – we all share our enthusiasm for the NHS, the BBC, for what the United Kingdom means overseas, for what we’ve done for the world… But I also think, and like, that through the diversity comes the strength.

“There are great differences in our nations, great varieties in everything from landscape to culture to literature, and I feel excited as a classic United Kingdom mongrel. I feel excited that I’ve got Llewellyn blood in my veins from Wales, I’ve got plenty of Scottish blood on both sides of the family, and a good dose of Middle England as well… You can feel Scottish and British. You can feel more Scottish than British. You can feel more English than British or more British than English. You can take your pick!”

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Since then, of course, the constitutional question has been anything but settled. And the Conservative governments that have followed his own, from May to Johnson to Truss to Sunak, have hardly endeared themselves to northern Britain. But it’s probably fair to say that Cameron was the last of the Tory PMs to have at least some purchase on middle Scotland. He seemed decent, moderate in many ways, modern and with an instinct for the one-nation conservatism that historically allows his party to forge national coalitions.

There has been the usual outrage on social media about his return to cabinet this week as Foreign Secretary, along the lines of “unelected head of state appoints unelected cabinet minister at the behest of unelected prime minister”.

I find all that a bit wearying. Cameron will be accountable at the next general election when the likelihood is that he will be removed from office along with the rest of this government. In the meantime, for the next year or so, he has a job to do as Foreign Secretary confronting a world in flames. His natural diplomacy, long experience and elite connections should make him a natural for the post. It’s very hard to think of anyone available to Rishi Sunak who is a better prospect.

The return of some moderation to the cabinet may not do the Conservatives much good when Scots go to the polls, but it certainly won’t do them any harm. As it stands, and despite the disapproval of the national government, many Scottish Tory MPs might well hold on to their seats due to the SNP’s loss of popularity, its seeming inability to understand rural communities and a degree of unionist tactical voting.

For all his flaws and for all the fury from the usual suspects, Cameron should risk a few trips north if he can find the time. For a Tory, he goes down well.

[See also: David Cameron: Restoration of a loser]

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