Alex Massie

Mr Cameron Comes To Edinburgh

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So Dave meets Eck at St Andrews House today. Earlier in the week there had been talk that their tea-time chat was nothing more than a "courtesy call" from the Prime Minister, popping in for a cuppa since, well, he was in the neighbourhood anyway. Perhaps. More importantly, this is the first meeting between the two since Alex Salmond announced he plans to hold a referendum on Scottish independence in the autumn of 2014. The details of that remain unresolved and important but, in terms of mood and optics, Salmond's meeting with David Cameron bears some resemblance to a press conference announcing and confirming an eagerly-anticipated prize fight is announced. This one is going ahead, the purse his huge and this is the contest that will define both fighters' legacy.

Mr Cameron has an op-ed published in the Scotsman today. It is not a bad thing but nor does it suggest the Prime Minister is in peak condition. Most of it, frankly, is stuff everyone in Scotland has heard before. That doesn't mean the Prime Minister's arguments are necessarily weak, merely that it invites the response "Is that all you've got?". Though properly respectful, even conciliatory, it is not an intevention liable to prove memorable. (Perhaps his speech in Edinburgh will though this, on the basis of his Scotsman article, this seems improbable.)

Not all of this is Mr Cameron's fault. But he has not - or not yet - found a winning blend of emotion and reason to make a truly persuasive case. He begins with a slight misdiagnosis of the matter: "Our shared home is under threat and everyone who cares about it needs to speak out". On the face of it this seems fair enough. But those of us who consider ourselves Scottish and British actually have two homes: a Scottish one and a British one. The latter is indeed shared with our English, Welsh and Irish cousins and could be thought threatened. But if this is so - and this, remember is how Mr Cameron chooses to frame the argument - then, while I might be sad to see the second home go, I might also admit that, as blows go, this is a survivable one since I'd still have my primary home to live in.

True, perhaps the second home is better than the first one but I already spend most of my time living in the Scottish home and, perhaps, visit the British one less frequently than I used to and certainly less often than did my parents or grand-parents who, anyway, loved it rather more keenly than I have ever done.

Perhaps it is a mistake to make so much of one phrase in Mr Cameron's speech but it seems to me that his choice of words - or that of whomever wrote the article - betrays a slight but real misunderstanding of the complex, sometimes distinct but at other times overlapping set of identities enjoyed (or endured) by those of us in Scotland.

Mr Cameron is not to blame for the rise of nationalist sentiment in Scotland; that's a phenomenon 40 years in the making. But it does make offering a "positive" case for the Union rather difficult. The Prime Minister is in the position of patiently telling a child* he should not want what he wants because what he wants will not be good for him. But I do want it, says the child stubbornly. Perhaps Mr Cameron is right, but the child may not be persuaded of that.

On the minds part of the Prime Minister's hearts and minds strategy he writes that, as a "practical" matter Scotland is "stronger, safer, richer and fairer" within the United Kingdom than outside it. Perhaps so but since Mr Cameron also, quite sensibly, concedes that "of course" Scotland could "make a go of being on its own" this must necessarily be a matter of degree, not an absolute. is rather like telling a man who has nearly drowned that, in the course of making it to land and safety, he has lost his hat. Think how much better-off he would be if only he still had his fine hat!

Anyway, according to the Prime Minister the UK is "stronger" because it enjoys a seat at the UN Security Council and "real clout in Nato and Europe". But almost no-one in Scotland is going to consider any of these very important and, to the extent anyone does, some voters may worry that the UK no longer actually has very much clout in europe at all.

We are "safer" because "in an increasingly dangerous world we have the fourth-largest defence budget on the planet, superb armed forces and anti-terrorist and security capabilities that stretch across the globe." Perhaps so, but by this definition Sweden or New Zealand can't be as safe as Scotland. I can imagine circumstances in which this became true; few of them seem terribly likely to actually happen. Worse still, this is an argument that, put in these terms, seems unlikely to persuade anyone even if it were true.

We are "richer" because "inside the United Kingdom Scotland’s five million people are part of an economy of 60 million, the seventh-richest economy on the planet and one of the world’s biggest trading powers." Again, this seems reasonable. Until you recall that no-one has proposed post-independence trade tariffs between Scotland and England. Would there not still be a single market? It seems probable, surely, that there would. 

The UK promotes "fairness" not just because "we all benefit from being part of a properly-funded welfare system, with the resources to fund our pensions and healthcare needs, but because there is real solidarity in our United Kingdom.When any part of the United Kingdom suffers a setback, the rest of the country stands behind it. Whether it is floods in the West Country, severe weather in the north or the economic dislocation that has hit different parts at different times and in different ways we are there for each other." Here Mr Cameron moves onto surer ground: but his argument is essentially, again, one that size brings benefits of its own and a bigger insurance pool is better than a smaller one.

And yet, again, if Scotland could "make a go" of independence it could presumably offer a semi-functioning healthcare system and would, again presumably, require transfer payments from wealthier parts of the country to poorer parts. There are two other problems: on any number of indicators the UK is outperformed by smaller countries in europe or other parts of the English-speaking world. They, doubtless, are keen on fairness and solidarity too. Secondly, this could just as easily be framed as an argument for a fully federal europe - in which circumstances Mr Cameron would, perhaps correctly, reject it.

So Mr Cameron's practical arguments for the Union are fine as far as they go. But, at least in this outline, they don't go very far. In this respect the Unionist argument is made harder, not easier, by reasonbleness. It removes some weapons from the Unionist arsenal, declaring them off-limits since a scorched-earth campaign - a new Rough Wooing if you will - would be a desperate way to win and come at a price even many Unionists are ill-disposed to pay. A relentlessly negative, fear-mongering Unionist campaign might well secure a No vote but it would be a shabby, disreputable, desperate business. Mr Cameron, at least for now, draws the line at the use of political and rhetorical chemical weapons. 

Which brings us to the emotional element of Mr Cameron's case. Here he writes:

The link between our nations is a precious thing. It’s about our history, our values, our shared identity and our joint place in the world. Just think of what we’ve achieved together. Scotland has contributed to the greatest political, cultural and social success story of the last 300 years: the creation and flourishing of a United Kingdom built on freedom and inclusivity.

The Union has never been about shackling different nations: it’s a free partnership, a joint effort, often driven by Scottish ideas and Scottish leadership. Together we have turned a group of islands on the western edge of Europe into one of the most successful countries in the world.

And one of the reasons we are tempted to look backwards is because Scotland as a nation – and as part of the United Kingdom for more than 300 years – has achieved so much.

But proud as that past and present are, I am convinced that for both Scotland and the United Kingdom our best days lie ahead of us. Though it may be a great historical achievement, the United Kingdom is even more of an inspiring model for the future.

Look at the key challenges of our times. In an increasingly globalised world, with populations moving, cultures clashing and new connections offering opportunities for prosperity, every state is asking itself how can we build institutions that combine diversity with strength?

Nothing encapsulates the principle of pooling risk, sharing resources and standing with your neighbour better than the United Kingdom.

And it is a United Kingdom which is not monochrome and minimalist but multi-national, multi-cultural and modern in every way. That is what the United Kingdom offers – and what other nations aspire to.

Well, this much is clear: someone in Downing Street has been reading Peter Oborne. I don't suppose everyone will agree with the Prime Minister but, perhaps unwittingly, he plays to a certain type of Scotch moral vanity here. If, he might almost be saying, you're the egalitarian internationalists you keep saying you are (and so much more egalitarian and internationalist than we poor English) then why would you seek to leave the brotherhood of which you are already a member and which, by implication at least, would be much impoverished by your departure?

There are some Scots who scoff at this, seeing this kind of talk as nothing more than nostalgia. Perhaps some of it is and it's the Unionists who are the sentimentalists these days. But even when the idea of Scottish independence was thought an impossible nonsense many Unionists were capable of appreciating the appeal of the sentiment behind that idea. Nationalists should be capable of comparable imaginative flexibility.

Multitudes abound within each Caledonian citizen: I don't know a Unionist without a streak of nationalist sentiment in their soul; most nationalists also contain a thick slab of Unionism (and few do so more plainly or explicitly than the First Minister himself). When nationalists talk about the "social union" that would survive after independence they tip their hat to the reality, power and enduring relevance of Unionist sentiment. It seems cheap for them to note this when the matter is framed in ways of their choosing but consider it an anachronism when this shared history and identity is used by Unionists for their own ends.

There is, of course, still a long way to go. The Prime Minister's article is no more than a half-decent start when it comes to finding the right kind of language to appeal to those Scots whose minds are not made up. Nevertheless, there is the beginnings of an argument here. Not "independence is a crazy, doomed ticket to permanent impoverishment" but a different question: is it really necessary? Which is another way of asking how much does it really matter? Are we really so different that we'd be better off apart? Stay in the club, Scotland, not because you have to but because we like you and want you and, actually, kind of need you too.

As I say, this is riskier than a scorched-earth campaign but this kind of long-view Unionism makes for it a better campaign that might be worth winning and not be one that deserved to lose.

*NB: I don't think Scotland is a child or that Mr Cameron is a scolding parent. It is an illustration and no more and no less than that.

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.