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17 September 2009

Cameron’s disgraceful U-turn over UK Union

Tories have always secretly seen tactical advantage in separation

By James Macintyre

Alastair Campbell today highlights David Cameron’s move to distance himself from the Union.

It was always going to happen. Two years ago I wrote about a speech Cameron gave defending the Union, and my suspicions that the position was not genuine and would not last. I concluded: “In his speech, Mr Cameron appeared finally to accept his side’s responsibility to save the Union. Let’s hope he sticks to that message throughout the temptation of an impending election campaign.”

Now, Cameron has weakly allowed the his party’s interests to come before those of the United Kingdom. As Campbell says: “It really would be something if the UK broke up on the watch of a Tory government.” But I fear it will happen if the Tories win.

In Cameron’s 2007 speech, he said:

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“The SNP now promise to deliver independence in 10 years and at the same time there are those in England who want the SNP to succeed, who would like to see the Union fail.” And he attacked those who “seek to use grievances to foster a narrow English nationalism”.

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“I have a message for them”, he added. “I will never let you succeed.”

And as I wrote at the time:

This was a significant shift on behalf of the leader of a party which once championed the Union, but has been giving distinctly mixed messages in recent years. Realising they are increasingly becoming the English party – it is worth remembering they polled more votes in England overall at the last election than Labour – some senior Tory MPs have sought cynical electoral advantage in “ramping up” English nationalism.

There is an influential strand running through what is still called the “Conservative and Unionist party” that secretly “would like to see the Union fail” and “seeks to use grievances to foster a narrow English nationalism”.

This is not some obscure faction alienated from the leadership. Instead, it is within the “modernising”, “liberal”, “new” Tories, inspired by Michael Portillo, whose agenda (of social and economic liberalism) has been adopted by Mr Cameron. It doesn’t care that the Union, 300 years old this year and in danger like never before, is a rich social, economic and political alliance of benefit to both sides. It rejects the idea that the Union is greater than the sum of its parts. And above all it resents the way Scotland not only “costs” England money but deprives the Tories of electoral advantage.

Last year [in 2006], Mr Portillo appeared to let the cat out of the bag when he said in conversation with Andrew Neil on the BBC’s This Week: “From the point of political advantage, the Conservatives have a better chance of being in government if Scotland is not part of the affair.” Pressed on this, he added: “You are continuing to assume the Union is sacrosanct. That is not an assumption I make any more.”

When Mr Portillo made these comments his dream of becoming Tory leader was gone and he was playing the part of pundit; he had no reason, in other words, to say what he said other than as genuine insight into a political strategy.

Curiously, a few days earlier, Alan Duncan – then shadow Trade and Industry Secretary and now Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory reform – floated a less naked Tory tactic to undermine the Union: the emphasis of Gordon Brown’s Scottishness and the claim that this was an obstacle to his becoming prime minister.

“I’m beginning to think it’s almost impossible now to have a Scottish Prime Minister,” he told the Politics Show on July 2, 2006, in a line that has been echoed subsequently by senior Tories. Meanwhile David Davis, the shadow home secretary, has repeatedly called for “English votes” in the House of Commons for English matters, exploiting the West Lothian Question – on why MPs from Scottish constituencies could vote on issues affecting England but those in England could not vote on matters Scottish – first raised by Tam Dalyell in the 1970s as a warning against devolution.

Mr Davis, although he has now changed his tune, also once called for an English parliament. Mr Duncan backed up this approach in his 2006 interview: “[The] Conservatives have a majority in England,” he said.

“We have MPs from Scotland, essentially telling England what to do, when they are doing the opposite in Scotland, have no control over what they are doing in their own constituencies in Scotland and are not in any way accountable for the effects their actions have on England.” Will Mr Cameron condemn or condone comments such as these which, to use his phrase, “foster a narrow English nationalism”?

There is no doubt electoral mileage for the Tories in playing politics with the Union. But the long term result – the end of centuries of integration – is regrettable. After devolution, people now talk and feel in terms of being English, Scottish or Welsh – ultimately racial categories – instead of the all-encompassing sense of Britishness.

As predicted, Cameron has performed a disgustingly self-interested U-turn on this crucial issue. Why is more not being made of this?