Cameron and the future of the Union: a forum

The Prime Minister has conceded that there will be a Scottish independence referendum and argued the case for the Union on these terms. This is a historic moment for Britain. openDemocracy asks its readers for their response in an open forum on the future of the Union.
Roger Scruton;
20 February 2012

The Prime Minister's Edinburgh speech on the Union marks a turning point in British politics. It acknowledges that the Scottish Parliament will call a referendum on whether Scotland should be independent and sets out a case for the Union, raising huge issues of cultures, identities and prospects for the UK. What is your response? Ideal length is 250 words.  Please send them to Niki Seth Smith (niki.sethsmith at Here you can click on contributors to go straight to their viewpoint:

Roger Scruton, Adam Ramsay, Tom Griffin, Robin Wilson, David Marquand, David Rickard, Cailean Gallagher, Nick Pearce, Suzanne Moore, Niki Seth Smith

Smaller is better

Niki Seth Smith

There is scant trust in Scotland that Cameron and the Coalition have Scottish interests at heart. So the Prime Minister has wisely played down his own importance, and gone with different emotional appeal: the history of the peoples of these nations standing together, our strength in greatness.

But does the fundamental argument that bigger is stronger still wash?

The nature of conflict and resistance has changed profoundly since the world wars that Cameron invokes throughout.

The people are no longer fighting on the shores. The invasion today comes in the form of an attack on our democracies, our institutions, our quality of life, orchestrated by a global elite, whose faith in neoliberal ideology enshrines the interests of international finance over our national interests.

Scotland has been developing its own resistance, and with independence has the chance to renew its democracy and civil society to further this, having broken many of its bonds to the City.

Tom Nairn has called for 'hyper-democracies' to 'counter-balance the pressures of advancing globalisation', but stops just short of stating that 'smaller is better'. But it seems to me that dropping the 'Great' from Britain would be the first step towards this goal.

Cameron said 'we're all in this together', now he says 'we are all better off together than apart'. Time to question who precisely he means by 'we'.


Where are the women in this debate?

Suzanne Moore

The photograph of Cameron’s cheerful but desperate porridge-munching in Scotland was funny, but his speech was clever. 

While Salmond presents independence as an inevitable and amicable separation, Cameron is also now trying out emotional territory. He is saying we can work at it, you know we love each other really and I will give you the space you need – honestly. And I’ll change. I promise. I won’t be so domineering.  And in his speech he was happy to name many Scots and their achievements. 

It’s a shame, though, that his speech-writers did not mention a single woman. This Union, I would say, still needs sexing up somewhat.

(This contribution was first published in the Mail on Sunday.)


It's about re-shaping the Union

Nick Pearce

Cameron’s speech was important for two reasons, one tactical and one substantive. 

As a matter of political tactics, he has abandoned  the rough wooing with which he started the year in favour of a more humble appeal to Scottish sentiment. He has now fallen into line with the other party leaders, who realised some time ago that the Scottish people would look dimly upon scaremongering or lectures about how weak, vulnerable and isolated they would be in an independent Scotland. Cameron has accepted that unionists must campaign on the positive virtues of the United Kingdom, and the importance of the democratic right of the Scottish people to determine their own destiny. Last week, his Whiggish speechwriters duly obliged with a well-crafted paean to the union.
More substantively, the Prime Minister has obliquely acknowledged that  the United Kingdom has embarked on a new process of evolution, in which further devolution of power and responsibility to Scotland are inevitable. It is too early to claim the United Kingdom is dead, even if teleological historians one day point to 1922 as the year in which the end-game started. But some form of “devo-more” or “devo-max” to Scotland is now certain.  That is to be welcomed. The current devolution settlement does not give Scotland the economic powers it needs or the ability to match its spending to the taxes required to finance it.  Nor should the UK and its nations stand on the ground of centralised state forms invented for the 20th century.
As others have written, English political and cultural identities must not be the residual in this seismic process of change. English self-awareness is on the rise.  Its articulation should not be surrendered to those on the right-wing margins of politics. Just as Scottish nationalism has been reinvented as a capacious, civic force, so too Englishness is capable of articulation into an open, broadly based progressive politics.  That will demand more devolution within England as well as a new settlement at Westminster. Alex Salmond’s most lasting achievement may turn out to be, not Scottish independence, but a reshaping of the union in which the democratic energies of the English are released.


A chance for Scotland to free itself from British militarism

Cailean Gallagher

May our Kingdom remain United, solid, safe, and secure, says Cameron. May we “see ourselves as others see us” in a “warm and stable home that billions elsewhere envy”. All those billions from the lands our Empire civilised: may they continue to look with admiration, warmth, but never bitterness, on our great country, “admired around the world as a source of prosperity, power, and security”.

Long may we puff out our chests as we strut on a global stage! Long may we retain “real clout in NATO”, as we wield rusty bombers flown by “Scottish pilots” against Libya and Afghanistan! Long live our British State whose “tentacles reach from the border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan to the CIA computers” of our allies across the Atlantic!            

Are these our aspirations of Scotland? Aye right they are. Nor are they the aspirations of many in England, or Wales, or Northern Ireland.

One of the most powerful lines of Henderson’s “Freedom Come a’ Ye” calls for the day when “broken faimilies fae lands we’ve herriet will curse Scotland the Brave nae mair, nae mair”. It is a plea for Scotland to free itself from its own historic imperialism, and a plea for all across these islands to resist identifying themselves with the international perception of British “prosperity, power, and security”.

With this referendum Scotland can challenge this ideological hold - can express a rejection of Britain’s militarism and bullish policies: nae mair, nae mair, at least not in our name.


The United Kingdom is not a nation state, let's stop acting like one

David Rickard

David Cameron offers no positive vision for Scotland or for England, nor ultimately for the Union itself: what is the purpose of the Union going forward other than emotional attachment, and supposed – but highly questionable – strategic and economic advantage?

It’s no wonder that Cameron doesn’t specify what further devolution for Scotland would mean. It’s not just because this offer is a typical Westminster-establishment sop: parsimoniously offering to delegate an additional portion of ‘powers’ that ultimately remain the property of the UK state. But beyond that, Cameron has no positive vision for Scotland as a nation that might wish to set its own priorities and manage its own affairs quite ‘independently’ of the paternalistic centre, whether fully as an independent state or as still nominally a part of the United Kingdom: devo max. Cameron’s offer of further devolution is not devo max, because that involves developing and articulating a distinct vision for Scotland, along with a vision for a more federal UK that simply isn’t on Cameron’s horizon or in his political lexicon.

And that is, in every sense, to say nothing of England, nor indeed of Wales, Northern Ireland or even Cornwall. If the Union is to survive and prosper, as Cameron wishes, it will need to start acting as a Union state, not a nation state: recognising the right to self-determination of its constituent parts. Otherwise, it won’t be just Scotland that will be demanding the Union’s end.


After fudge and mudge Scotland will be independent

David Marquand

Not for the first time, David Cameron is spitting into the wind. The United Kingdom he hopes to save is patently doomed. As Norman Davies shows in his extraordinary Vanished Kingdoms, states, like human beings, are mortal. Some die peacefully; some do so in a welter of blood. But, sooner or later, they all die. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, the immediate predecessor of the present United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, died when the 26 counties of southern Ireland seceded to form the state we now know as the Irish Republic. For a quarter of a century, Scotland has been gearing itself up to follow the Irish example. I doubt if it will do so immediately. Fudging and mudging will probably save the Union for a little longer. But the supply of fudge is running out.

The Union of Scotland and England established in 1707 was not the product of a spontaneous upsurge of popular feeling. It was an act of cold-blooded statecraft on both sides of the Border.  It was created for empire and sustained by empire. So long as the empire was going strong, few dreamed of Scottish Home Rule, let alone of independence.  But it was one thing to be a junior partner in the greatest Empire the world had ever seen, quite another to be locked into a declining, querulous polity, with no role and no obvious future. For three hundred years Scotland has been a nation without a state. Before 1707 it was both a nation and a state. It may or may not return to that status in my lifetime, but return it surely will.

Blundering Cameron has learned nothing from Northern Ireland

Robin Wilson

Not for the first time, a home-counties English politician has talked about the United Kingdom as if it and Great Britain were synonymous. Northern Ireland clearly remains outre-mer, as evidenced in Cameron’s unblinking unionism vis-à-vis Scotland and his bring-it-on approach to a referendum on independence—both inconsistent with the more nuanced positions successive governments in London have come to adopt on Northern Ireland.

It is no wonder that a Little Englander who blunders across the wider European political canvas, as evidenced by recent summitry, should address so clumsily the evolving Scottish polity and public. Someone with antennae more sensitive to the asymmetric devolution which has emerged in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales over the last decade and a half would betray more recognition of the irrelevance of either-or, in-out posturing and allow the Scottish public to choose ‘devolution max’ if they wish.

The danger, of course, is that Cameron’s approach simply polarises the debate. Ever the opportunist, Alex Salmond will be more than happy to join this game of masculinist posturing. And Northern Ireland’s sectarian politicians will play bit parts in this predictable morality play.


Unionists can't paint independence as the uncertain option, then make vague promises themselves

Tom Griffin

Cameron's speech was typically magnanimous and well-judged in tone. However, the substantive flaws in the UK Government position are evident in the following key paragraph: 

And let me say something else about devolution. This does not have to be the end of the road.  When the referendum on independence is over, I am open to looking at how the devolved settlement can be improved further.  And yes, that does mean considering what further powers could be devolved.  But that must be a question for after the referendum... When Scotland has settled this question once and for all..

This is a position which the Government shares with a Labour Party, whose stance is probably still shaped too much by Scottish Labour MPs, whose own interests are not identical with those of their colleagues either at Holyrood or in other parts of the UK.

The Lib Dems in contrast have begun to re-emphasise their own Home Rule tradition - five years too late. In the previous Scottish Parliament, they could have determined the shape of the debate. Instead, they retreated into the reflexive unionism that has so badly served the Westminster parties at Holyrood. If their federalist credentials are to be taken seriously now, they must spell out what their proposals are.

The rub for all of the unionist parties now, the Government especially, was evident as  soon as the Prime Minister delivered his speech. Reporters asked what the prospect of further powers means. The BBC's Norman Smith even suggested the prospect of further devolution made a question on devo-max redundant.

For this to be true there must be clarity about what is in prospect - just what both the Conservatives and Labour seek to avoid. This is unsustainable. The unionist parties cannot campaign against the uncertainties of independence, while making nebulous promises themselves. They will have to be precise about the nature of their offer to Scotland if it stays in the UK.     

But on this question - unlike independence, which is self-determined -  we in the rest of the UK have a right to a say. Maybe this is whypoliticians have been so reluctant to raise it. Even if Cameron succeeds in narrowing the the referendum question he cannot avoid a much broader debate about the future of the UK.


The King of Cuts uses NHS and welfare system to bargain? The Scots won't buy it

Adam Ramsay

Cameron ended his trip to a porridge factory and kicked off his speech from Edinburgh's Grassmarket. Shrouded by a carefully chosen view of the castle, he launched, American tourist style, into a lecture on Scottish history. Just round the corner is Greyfriars Kirk, where the Convananters gathered on 28 February 1638 to sign – some say in blood - their oath against the Catholic Church. The constitutional question has changed a little, but the stage remains recognisably the same.

Whilst Cameron was careful to pay his respect to our nation's history, Alex Salmond has made a career describing her future. Cameron cannot be seen as anti-Scots. Salmond cannot be seen as a petty nationalist. But the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey from December shows this referendum will not be fought on sentiment. With most Scots willing to change their mind for £500 a year, both sides must make a clear case: how will being governed from Holyrood or Westminster make lives better in Scotland.

Until now, Cameron hasn't made this policy case. But now, he begins – listing some shared institutions:

“free healthcare for all; in a generous welfare system for the poorest; and championing the most vulnerable on the world stage. A United Kingdom which is not monoglot, monochrome, and minimalist but multi-national, multi-cultural, and modern in every way. Our United Kingdom, founded on the strengths, yes, of our constitutional monarchy, our parliamentary democracy, and the rule of law. But it is also the birthplace of the NHS, the BBC and Christian Aid.”

It must be uncomfortable for a radical neo-liberal of Cameron's bent to make this case to the Scots for a shared State, when in Westminster he and his government make the case for privatising the State.

He talks of “ensuring the same disability benefits for those in need from Motherwell to Maidstone” - the very week that the DWP is slammed for forcing disabled people – from Motherwell to Maidstone - into unlimited unpaid work. By the time of the referendum, Cameron is hoping Lansley's Health and Social Care Bill will have marketised the NHS in England. These may be shared cultures, to an extent, but they are not all shared powers. NHS Scotland is already a separate body, and whilst the abstract 'rule of law' is something basically every country claims to believe in, the laws in Scotland and England are based on entirely different systems.

He looks at two other areas – foreign & defence policy, and macro-economic policy. On the former, he struggles again: beyond his attempts to reach to the beaches of D-Day and the trenches of Northern France, he talks about our common efforts in Libya and Afghanistan – neither exactly examples of popular military adventures. If he thinks he can defend the Union by pledging to send more Scottish boys to die in foreign wars... and on economic policy, he essentially has two significant arguments: you need us to back up your banks, and you need our currency. The independence camp will need good answers to reassure voters on these points if they are not to fear an abyss.

The Westminster pundits loved Cameron's speech. But most of them have little understanding of feel for the Scottish people. Unlike the bookies. The head of media at William Hill tweeted after the speech:

@sharpeangle: Since [Cameron's speech] all the money bet on the #indyref has been for Yes vote, now 5/2 from 3/1.

We'll have to wait for the polls to see its impact. But The Grassmarket is where Edinburgh used to hang its criminals. On the bookies figures, it seems that Dave's attempt to schmooze the Scots may have gone down like a medieval bread thief...


Brief response to the Prime Minister’s speech on the prospect of an independent Scotland.

Roger Scruton

I sympathise with David Cameron’s desire to retain the United Kingdom, and to build on the intricate history that has bound the English and the Scots together, through good and bad times. He is right to emphasize the difficulty of undoing our mutual economic, military and cultural dependence. He is right to recognise that we built and lost an Empire together, and depended upon each other and on the bravery of both our people, in the trial of recent wars. However, there is one point he does not address and it is the central one, which is that we are not a United Kingdom. Devolution has in effect disenfranchised the English. The Scots have two votes, one to govern themselves, and another to send MPs to Westminster to govern the English, who have only one vote. Moreover, the Scots, who have fallen out of love with the Labour Party at home, nevertheless will always vote to send Labour MPs to Westminster, in part as a rebuke to the English. Why should we English accept this, given the manifest anti-English nature of so many Scottish MPs in Westminster?

Mr Cameron’s speech would be more persuasive, therefore, if he had troubled to address the question of what a truly United Kingdom would be, now that the Scots have a Parliament of their own. It would have to be a kingdom in which each component nation has some kind of assembly to address national issues, with a federal Parliament to broker matters of common interest. No other solution would be compatible with the measure of devolution that all our nations, save England, have now achieved. Since no member of the political class wishes to create an English Parliament, then the only way forward is to have a real referendum on the Union, in which we English have a vote. Everything to date has been in the hands of the Scots. Why should we not be asked in our turn whether we wish to retain the union? I think that, if we were asked, and no one has done anything to rectify the monstrous injustice under which we English labour, the right way to vote is for separation.


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