Alex Massie

David Cameron Abandons The Tory Diehards

Text settings

David Cameron's apparent willingness to contemplate greater devolution after an independence referendum (pithily summarised by one SNP MSP as: Vote no to cake today so I might give you some cake tomorrow) really is both sensible and startling. As recently as last month the official UK government position was, if I remember it correctly, independence or nowt. Now it is some kind of souped-up Home Rule or independence. This is quite a dramatic, sudden shift. Has anyone told Ruth Davidson about this or asked her opinion?

Those of us on the right of Scottish politics have reason to welcome the Prime Minister's shift. Again, just last month Downing Street "sources" were telling the press that greater fiscal powers for Scotland were simply "inconsistent" with life within the United Kingdom. This no longer seems to be the case.

Perhaps I'm running too far ahead of the Prime Minister here, but I assume his willingness to countenance greater devolution implies some form of fiscal autonomy. If it does not then what does it concern and what, by the way, would be the point of it?

Mr Cameron's speech today was not a bad one and it made a braw, heart-based defence of Unionism. But does he really appreciate  what he's done by ditching the defence of the status quo? (I happen to think it pleasing that he's abandoned a manifestly unpopular position but that's a minor matter.) The next act in the drama stars David Cameron, not Alex Salmond. Rather than pressing the First Minister to flesh out his proposals for life in an independent Scotland, we must now ask the Prime Minister what he really means by his apparent conversion to "further devolution"?

Mr Salmond has spent years refining his answers to independence-related questions and even now not all of them are wholly persuasive; Mr Cameron will have approximately ten minutes to come up with some answers to the questions that must follow his speech today. Does he have those answers? Is he ready for this or will he trust that a dollop of Cameronian reassurance and charm will see him through? I trust not because I doubt it will.

James Kirkup makes another salient point:

[I]sn’t the PM now open to an SNP charge of inconsistency? He opposes putting more devolution (“devo-max”) on the referendum ballot paper, insisting Scots should have a straight in/out question. But if he’s happy to offer more devolution, why not put it to the people? The PM will need a good answer, especially if he’s to avoid the suspicion that this is all just a bit of ruse to forestall independence. Indeed, it was notable that when the PM was asked today what extra powers he’d give Scotland, he was a bit short of detail. That's something that needs rather urgent attention in No 10.

Give Mr Cameron credit for this: he has decided there is no damn virtue in cluttering up Unionism's last ditch with the bodies of gallant Tory dead. He is not an ultra or a diehard; ratter he appears to know when to abandon a proposition as foolish as it was out of kilter with the better kind of Tory principle. For this he deserves some credit. 

Meanwhile and just out of interest, has anyone heard anything from anyone in the the Labour party, north or south of the border, either today or recently at all? I thought not. There are two statesmen in this bout and neither of them sports a red rosette. At the moment at least, the Labour party has nothing to say about any of this. That's fine with me, of course but I should think it might trouble Labour partisans.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.