Scottish self-government and the case for the union

The Prime Minister's Edinburgh speech on the Union was a historic moment for British politics. Now Scots must find their answer to his claim that Scotland in the Union is 'stronger, safer, richer and fairer'.
Gerry Hassan
17 February 2012

David Cameron came north to Scotland speaking with the authority of Prime Minister of the UK and the status of leading a party with one MP out of 59 Westminster representatives.

He delivered an important speech and intervention and met with First Minister Alex Salmond; this can be seen as part of the long campaign and positioning of each man and side seeing himself as a long distance runner, pacing themselves, sizing up and trying to get the better of their opponent.

Cameron’s speech was in its tone and content, thoughtful and astute. It was in the view of Joyce Macmillan, ‘the strongest explicitly unionist speech made in Britain since the 1950s’ (1). That may seem an overstatement, but it is one of the most nuanced interventions made in Scotland for many a year, perhaps since the advent of Thatcherism in 1979. It avoided the pitfalls Edinburgh born and educated Blair used to regularly get into coming north, who was often seen as hectoring and patronising Scottish audiences to the extent Alastair Campbell once called the Scots press ‘unreconstructed wankers’ (2).

Cameron reflected on a number of factors: he acknowledged his own party’s weak and perilous position in Scotland; he addressed that there was a Tory sentiment and self-interest in parts which said why don’t we cast off Scotland and had visions of ruling England forever; and he conceded that who he was personally, a privileged Englishman coming north with the mission of persuasion, just might be counter-productive.

With all that, he conveyed a sense of the tapestry of Scotland as a rich, diverse, historic country, of the many cultures, traditions and places which live and thrive in this nation. He invoked that he would ‘fight head, heart and soul’ to maintain the union that is the United Kingdom. At the heart of the speech, Cameron proposed that the Scots should vote ‘no’ to independence, and in return would be offered more substantial powers from Westminster. He put it:

…  let me say something else about devolution.

That doesn’t 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 means considering what further powers could be devolved.

But that must be a question for after the referendum, when Scotland has made its choice about the fundamental question of independence. (3) 

This represents an important shift for Cameron, who only a few weeks ago was posing Scotland’s choice in stark terms. Then, it was independence versus the status quo; Scotland having increased financial powers was ‘inconsistent’ with remaining in the union, and a unified tax and benefit system was at the ‘heart’ of the UK (4). All that has changed.

Now Cameron has begun to mark out a more strategic approach, which still has high risks. It carries memories of 1979 and Alec Douglas Home on the eve of the first devolution referendum inviting Scots to vote ‘no’ in the safe knowledge that the Tories in government would bring forward better devolution proposals; none came but it did aid the ‘no’ vote. And then there is the issue of the substance: what ‘further powers’ are being talked about and could be considered? Cameron and company are going to have to come clean, get into detail, and acknowledge that the current Scotland Bill going through Parliament – based on narrow, limited fiscal autonomy – is flawed and inadequate.

As an aside, but an important one, this marks an evolution in the pro-union case which has provided particularly confusing for Labour. Margaret Curran, Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, responding to Cameron’s speech on ‘Radio 4’, found herself caught between her mutual loathing of Tories and Nats (5). In the 24 hours since Cameron’s speech, no substantial Labour response has emerged – only silence.

The Cameron-Salmond dynamic and the interplay between the UK and Scottish Governments is part of an elaborate, serious dance. The prize is Scottish independence or the maintenance of the union, but for the moment the main disagreement has centred on process, and the UK Government insisting on one single, simple ‘Yes/No’ question on independence, and the Scottish Government holding out for the prospect of a two vote question, and including on the ballot paper full fiscal autonomy or what is unattractively called ‘devo max’.

This is politics as positioning. The SNP Government were elected on a mandate to hold an independence referendum, but seem reluctant to literally implement it. Instead, they seem to want to park themselves on the side of majority Scots opinion and support for more powers. The UK Government would, in opening the doors to ‘further powers’, be moving towards a ‘devo max’ position, but want to make the choice black and white as it thinks it has more chance of decisively winning.

Scotland of course, or most of Scotland, does not trust Tories or Tory Prime Ministers for good reasons. However, there also has to be a limit to how far we stereotype, caricature and don’t listen to Tories, particularly when they happen to be the Prime Minister. It doesn’t mean we should blindly take what they say on face value, but the perennial Tory bogeyman coming north to attack the weak and vulnerable doesn’t always help clear Scots thinking.

How do we have several Scottish Conversations at once?

The next two and half years are going to demand several levels of conversation and activity in Scotland. First, the SNP and pro-self-government forces are going to have to define independence. In so doing, they are going to have to put more detail on it than the risk free, safety first SNP strategy which has so far begged the question: what difference will it make?

Second, pro-union forces have to offer a vision of ‘devo max’ and a reformed union. They will have to do this before the independence vote in autumn 2014 and come up with a timescale for implementing reform after the vote, making it public and committing to it pre-vote. Otherwise many Scots are going to see the Cameron gambit as the ghost of 1979 and Alec Douglas-Home.

Third, the rest of Scotland has to concentrate on wider change and what difference this can make to the challenges facing society. This has to involve a more diverse, dynamic array of players than the Potemkin village of ‘civic Scotland’ which has so far emerged, and which entails the leaders of the voluntary sector and trade union movement. And Scotland really for all the mythology of ‘popular sovereignty’ has to come up with better expressions of it than top-heavy Commissions and Conventions, made up of the great and good.

There are also pitfalls to avoid on both sides. One particular obstacle is bitter, abrasive unionism of a Labour variety – seen in full flush this week in the House of Commons Scottish Affairs Select Committee chaired by combative anti-SNP Labour MP Ian Davidson, whose report, ‘The Referendum on Separation for Scotland: Unanswered Questions’ was as bad as it sounded (6). All sorts of terrible things might happen in an independent Scotland, it posed: no NHS, BBC, Royal Mail or even, truth be told, ‘Sunday Times Wine Club’. That surely put paid to nationalist dreams!

On a more serious level and a starter for debate, Cameron said, ‘The union helps to make Scotland stronger, safer, richer and fairer’ (7). This seems a good basis for the beginning of a Scottish conservation(s).  We could begin to look at the Scotland of today, and address the realities of Scottish society, and assess how Scotland measures up to these four areas.

Is Scotland really made ‘stronger, safer, richer and fairer’ in the union of today? And how would self-government and independence change and transform each of these?

This is something both unionists and nationalists until now have been rather silent and evasive on. Instead, both have enjoyed getting rather excited talking about abstracts, absolutes and fantasies, both positive and negative in their imaginations.

We need the Scottish debate to go beyond narrow constitutionalism into citizenship in the widest sense: economic, social, cultural and political. Cameron’s four point assessment of the benefits of the union offers a start. A stronger Scotland because of the UK’s post-imperial role in a variety of institutions; do we really believe that? A safer Scotland because of the UK’s defence and foreign policy commitments; that is a tough argument to make. A richer Scotland because of the transfers across the UK; another very difficult call. And the idea of a more fair Scotland because of the union; in the fourth most unequal society in the developed world, and most unequal country in Western Europe apart from Portugal (8).

This is the terrain David Cameron has identified as the critical areas to debate the future of the union. This has to involve a wider conversation and imagination than just the absolutes of unionism versus nationalism. For underneath all this is Scotland’s explicit dissatisfaction with market fundamentalism and vandalism and a quiet, determined desire for a different, progressive, communitarianism, combined with a distrust of the ideas and motivations of the British state. It is this Scottish sentiment that has to find voice and form in the next two years and aid making this debate and choice a meaningful, as well as historic one.



1. Joyce Macmillan, ‘Cameron grasps the thistle at last’, The Scotsman, February 17th 2012,

2. Murray Ritchie, Scotland Reclaimed: The Inside Story of Scotland’s First Democratic Parliamentary Election, Saltire Society 2000, p. 43.

3. David Cameron, ‘David Cameron’s Speech in Edinburgh on Scottish Independence’, Total Politics, February 16th 2012, emphasis in the original,

4. Eddie Barnes, ‘No further tax powers for Scotland, says David Cameron’, Scotland on Sunday, January 29th 2012,

5. PM, BBC Radio 4, February 16th 2012.

6. Scottish Affairs Committee, The Referendum on Separation for Scotland: Unanswered Questions, House of Commons, February 15th 2012,

7. Cameron, op. cit.

8. Danny Dorling, Fair Play: A Daniel Dorling Reader on Social Justice, Policy Press 2011. 

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