For the first time since being elected party leader, David Cameron returned to his old holiday retreat of Jura last weekend. His father-in-law, Viscount Astor, owns an estate on the island which has some of the best deer-stalking terrain in Scotland. Although Mr Cameron is an accomplished shot, he did not join in this time — perhaps mindful of how photographs of him in tweeds and with a shotgun would go down on the urban election trail. He restricted himself instead to swimming, fishing and contemplating the battle ahead.
This time next year, Mr Cameron will probably be the Prime Minister of Scotland — a title which is bolted on to the English job. Tony Blair tended to skirt around this, and behaved as if devolution had relieved him of having to think about life north of Newcastle. The network of feuds, grudges and grandstanding which comprises Scottish politics is something most in Westminster could happily live without. But Mr Cameron has no Gordon Brown figure to hand all this over to. He will have to deal with the Scots himself.
The last week has shown what he is up against. Alex Salmond’s nationalist administration in Edinburgh has yet again succeeded in achieving one of its main goals: getting people’s attention. It has done so thanks to the spectacularly inept handling of the case of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, who, just eight years ago, was found guilty of 270 counts of murder in the Lockerbie bombings and has been diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer. It is a political football that the SNP could not resist giving a kick.
It is hard to argue a medical case for Megrahi’s release, given that cancer treatment in Tripoli is immeasurably worse than in Scotland. Given the weight of the evidence against him, it is difficult to see why he should be freed when so many terminally ill prisoners are not. Given that most of his victims were American, it is also hard to disregard Washington’s robust view (personally conveyed by Hillary Clinton) that he should serve his 27-year sentence. But as Mr Cameron is likely to find out, the SNP plays politics in a very different way.
Mr Salmond’s goal is fairly simple: to win a referendum on independence, should one ever be held. To soften public opinion ahead of this, the SNP’s strategy is to behave as if Scotland is already independent. This means persuading the national press to refer to the administration as the ‘Scottish government’ and accruing various trappings of a nation state. The SNP’s agenda is all about posturing — whether it is sending aid to Malawi or opening Scottish embassies in Beijing.
Mr Salmond’s mission is being made progressively easier by Whitehall’s lack of resistance. In the early days of devolution, any reference to a Scottish ‘government’ was met with fury from Westminster. Now, Whitehall seems not to care any more. Jim Murphy, the Scotland Secretary, repeatedly warns his civil servants that they are unwittingly colluding in Mr Salmond’s agenda whenever they co-operate with wheezes like a Scottish International Development strategy. He is normally met with looks of disinterest or bafflement.
At the top level, Mr Salmond is regularly thwarted. In his private meetings with Mr Brown the First Minister is regularly amazed (and dismayed) by the Prime Minister’s grasp of detail over gas regulation, or the finer points of regional funding formulae. Mr Brown can instantly spot a nationalist trick. Number 10 has been careful to say almost nothing about the Megrahi case, for example, so as to deny Mr Salmond the chance of blowing this up into a spat with Whitehall. As Scottish Labour know from experience, fighting the SNP means knowing when not to engage.
There is a noticeable deficit of such wisdom and knowledge on the Conservative benches, which include only one MP from Scotland (David Mundell). There are plenty of Scots around Mr Cameron, but they tend to be political refugees nestled in safe English seats. When Mr Salmond found himself sitting next to George Osborne on a flight from London to Edinburgh he was delighted to be asked his advice on how the Scottish Conservatives could best improve their chances. The First Minister had a ready answer: stop defending the Union with England and start becoming a little more sympathetic to Scottish nationalism.
This is precisely what the Tories in the Scottish Parliament have been doing — most notably in the welcome Annabel Goldie, their leader, extended to the report of the Calman Commission which calls for the further transfer of powers to Edinburgh. In Westminster, the few Tories who retain a vague interest in Scotland mutter darkly about the ‘Vichy Tories’ in Holyrood. But they are outnumbered by Tory MPs who jokingly refer to the SNP as the ‘Cameron highlanders’, seeing them as political mercenaries fighting Labour in its Celtic homeland.
Given this fledgling alliance, a Tory victory in the general election would bring Mr Salmond a chance to achieve a long-standing nationalist goal: financial independence. For some time, nationalists in Westminster have been quietly cultivating Tories who are known to resent the level of subsidy sent to Scotland (public spending per head is still 24 per cent higher than south of the border). They propose a new settlement. Why not set Scotland’s budget at whatever Scotland raises in tax? This is, after all, how the Basque country deals with Spain. Several Tories, including many on the front bench, are interested.
What is unusual about the growing Tory–SNP axis is that each side thinks they are fooling the other. Mr Salmond argues that, by exploiting the Little Englander side to the Tory party, he can take Scotland nine tenths of the way to independence. The Tories who support fiscal autonomy see a rare chance of getting rid of the cost of Scotland and being thanked for it — by a First Minister who is deluded enough to think that he would win from such a deal.
Absent from this is talk about defending the Union. When asked, Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne both say they strenuously support it — but if gossip in the bars of the Commons is any indicator, Tory support for the Union is draining. According to a recent survey of Tory candidates, 46 per cent say they would not be ‘uncomfortable about Scotland becoming independent’. It is all too clear that the SNP will use every tool at their disposal to undermine the Union. The question is whether a Conservative government will have the motivation or energy to fight back.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated August 22, 2009