Alex Massie

David Cameron’s Legacy? Preserving the Union or presiding over the Break-Up of Britain

David Cameron's Legacy? Preserving the Union or presiding over the Break-Up of Britain
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Politics is at least partially a matter of perspective. The same object can look very different depending upon the angle from which it is viewed. Which brings me to Brother Forsyth's latest column. I bow to no-one in my admiration for James's reporting and astute analysis. Nor do I dispute much of what he says in his analysis of David Cameron's legacy. No, what's interesting is what isn't there.

The Union.

I know. Scots go on and on and on about this stuff. It is true that the Caledonian gene is strong on self-absorption. Nevertheless, I think it can reasonably be considered revealing that this type of column, written by one of Westminster's smartest analysts and based, one presumes, at least in part upon conversations with leading MPs and Prime Ministerial aides makes no mention of the fact that this time in 2015 the United Kingdom may no longer exist as we have come to know it. It is not, it seems, something worth mentioning, far less a matter that might go some way towards determining David Cameron's legacy.

As it happens, I know that Cameron does consider the Union important. He has no desire to become this century's Lord North. Nevertheless, it is surely striking that Scotland's independence referendum still seems not to interest large parts of the Westminster elite. It is not as though the future of the country is not at stake or anything...

Perhaps it stems from a breezy confidence that, dash it, Alex Salmond and the Scottish nationalists cannot possibly prevail. True, the opinion polls presently support that conclusion. But, viewed from Scotland, I'm not so sure Unionists should be quite so complacent. A nationalist victory is far from impossible.

But even if the SNP and the wider nationalist movement is defeated it matters, I think, that they be defeated after a full and serious campaign. Victory by default or inertia is not quite good enough for the No campaign. Or, rather, should not be considered good enough.

Which poses a problem for Cameron. He knows that the SNP want to drag him into the fight thinking that the more often the Prime Minister comes to Scotland the more votes he pushes into the Yes camp. Understandably, he is reluctant to debate Salmond.

And yet there comes a point at which battle mut be joined. Cameron is wary of nationalist tank traps but, eventually, there comes a time when he has to go on the offensive. To switch military considerations, there comes a moment when he has to be Ulysses S Grant, not George B McClellan. There are often good reasons to avoid a battle but battle cannot be avoided forever.

Besides, there is something pathetic about a British Prime Minister shirking this kind of contest. It amounts to a kind of dereliction of duty. If the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom will not make the case for the United Kingdom then who will? And what kind of case will it be?

No, it will not do. A Cameron-Salmond square-go might cheer the nationalists but what of it? It might cheer Unionists too. (Well, some Unionists. Labour Unionists might be unhappy.)

It is not a risk-free enterprise of course. It may well be that the nationalists are correct to suppose that a reinvigorated Cameron would boost the Yes vote. The SNP actually needs a Tory recovery in England. The more it looks as though Cameron will win a second term, the more votes in Scotland will shift into the Yes camp. That, at any rate, is the theory.

Stephen Noon, a canny nationalist operative, suggested that Cameron's UK fortunes would be boosted by a No vote in the Scottish referendum. I pooh-poohed this at the time, suspecting that the good people of Devon or Hereford are not much interested in, and perhaps even only dimly aware of, Scotland's constitutional stramash. But I think I may have been mistaken. Mr Noon had a point.

It is not so much that there is a clear connection between Cameron winning in Scotland and him then prevailing in England too. No, I doubt voters will be persuaded to put aside their own concerns just to plump for Bold Dave, Britannia's Saviour. Rather the impact of a No vote would be felt in other, different ways. In the first place it would give Cameron a much-needed triumph. One that produced acres of copy too. And that would, presumably, put a spring in the Cameronian step that might, in turn, help persuade voters that he's the fellow to entrust with the keys to Downing Street. It's not impossible.

But of course that requires Cameron to play a proper part in the campaign. As Iain Martin says he should spend more time in Scotland.  If he doesn't then it cannot really be his victory. He will have been skulking, feart, on the sidelines while other folk do the fighting. Little good can come of that.

Moreover, leaving the field to Alistair Darling and Labour leaves Cameron in the worst position of all: victory would hand him no credit but he'd still be blamed - by posterity, anyway - for defeat.

That would be his legacy. Avoiding that negative stain might not seem like a great achievement but nor is it the worst thing in the world. Better, certainly, than being recalled as the man who presided over the break-up of the United Kingdom. Because, in the end, that's what Cameron is playing for. To win he must risk losing too.

At some point even Westminster will have to start to pay attention to all this. Tiresome, I know, but there you have it.