Alex Massie

David Cameron’s Peculiar Unionism

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David Cameron's op-ed in Scotland on Sunday this week was interesting. Not because of anything that Cameron said but because it appeared at all. It's another small indication that the country is preparing itself for a new Conservative government. To put it another way, I don't think SoS would have been very interested in an op-ed from Iain Duncan-Smith or Mixhael Howard. What would have been the point? What could they have said to the country that anyone wanted to hear? Not much.

So Cameron's proposals for how he would work with Holyrood are, while scarcely earth-shattering, useful to have put on the public record. Nonetheless, they are sensible, modest and designed to reassure. Cameron, I think, may actually understand devolution - and how it has changed the dynamics of the British political scene - rather more than Gordon Brown does. Certainly Cameron seems more prepared to work with, rather than against, the SNP ministry in Edinburgh. Then again, that's a marriage of some convenience given that they share a common enemy.

That being the case, why shouldn't Cameron endorse Alex Salmond's call for a referendum on independence. ConservativeHome's Jonathan Isaby asked Cameron about this on Monday. Here's Cameron's reply:

"If we win the election and if, by some miracle, we don't have 25 seats in Scotland and have slightly fewer, then I would be a Prime Minister who would want to govern in the interests of everyone in Scotland.

"I would recognise the shortage of mandate, if you like, in Scotland by getting straight up there and meeting the First Minister and saying, look, anyone who wants to try to work with me, I will work with them. I will make sure my ministers go to Holyrood and listen to committees there. Likewise, Scottish ministers should come to Westminster and engage with the committees here.

"I would do whatever it takes to govern in the interests of the whole of the United Kingdom and to try to make sure, that over time, that we can strengthen that United Kingdom. I would be prepared to consider anything to enable us to do that."  The key phrase here is "shortage of mandate". It's pretty remarkable to hear such stuff from a Conservative leader, not least because it a) recognises the extent to which Scotland is now a semi-detached member of a less-United-than-it-used-to-be-Kingdom and b) suggests that Cameron has accepted what is essentially a nationalist reading of any potential Tory victory. That being so, how would a Cameron government seek to implement any proposals for, say, welfare reform? "Shortage of mandate: suggests that Cameron concedes, perhaps inadvertently, that there'd be a kind of moral veto against Cameron's plans, even for reserved matters. As I say, that's a classic nationalist line of reasoning and an abandonment of the old Tory lines about the overall integrity of the United Kingdom and so on and so on.

I don't doubt that Cameron is (instinctively) committed to the Union and is fully aware that he should resist English nationalist bleatings and recommendations to cut Scotland free (or, rather, abandon poor Caledonia to her fate). But suggesting that his writ might not run north of Berwick is a curious position for a Tory to adopt publicly even if it is also, in some ways, an admission that there's not much point in pretending that matters are how you'd like them to be and not as they are.

And what of the referendum question? Why not have it in 2010? The arguments for settling  - for a while at least - the naitonal question are compelling. It won't happen, of course, largely because it's all terribly risky and a leap into that most terrifying of places - the unknown. Nor, for that matter, is it Annabel Goldie's style. Aunt Annabel would much rather promise every voter a pair of sensible shoes than take such a bold, daring leap.

Of course, the other course open to the Tories would be to go into coalition with the SNP after the 2011 Holyrood elections. Granted, that would cause many a heart attack in both parties but it's the natural anti-Labour alliance. At present the Tories are a kind of informal partner, helping the nationalists pass their budget and so on but forced to live off crumbs rather than have their own seat at the table. Would the SNP go for such an arrangement? Probably not, having experienced life as a minority ministry since 2007. But this, and other matters, are concerns for another day...

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.

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