The Odd Couple: Alex Salmond, David Cameron and Post-Election Maneouvres

David Torrance
15 October 2009

An OurKingdom symposium: see also articles by Gerry Hassan, James Mitchell and Gareth Young

Like any sensible political party confident of electoral victory the UK Conservatives are already preparing for the uncharted territory of sharing power with an SNP minority Scottish Government. The French call it cohabitation, but unlike France the UK lacks a constitution that sets out the rules of the game.  

The Tory challenge, therefore, is largely a tactical one, particularly as the existence of a Scottish Parliament precludes any prospect of a government ‘imposing' domestic policies on a Scotland which voted yellow, red and orange rather than blue. For the SNP too, this is the undiscovered country from which no MSP has yet returned.

Some old SNP battle cries will, however, re-emerge from the mist of the 1980s. Some SNP MPs have already raised the prospect of David Cameron winning a general election with ‘no mandate' north of the border, while the austerity in public spending laid out by the Shadow Chancellor George Osborne at last week's Tory conference is sure to be attacked as ‘anti-Scottish'.

Cameron and his advisers are not stupid. They realize that their biggest challenge on forming a government with only two or three Scottish MPs is to prevent a repeat of the situation the Conservative Party got itself into during the Thatcher years. Exactly how this will be attempted (saying ‘achieved' would be too presumptuous) already seems clear.

The new Tory Prime Minister will, in short, attempt to smother Alex Salmond with charm. Stressing an agenda of ‘mutual respect', Cameron will be photographed visiting the First Minister within a week of a general election victory, while Dave has also promised to ‘address' the Scottish Parliament (he would have to be invited, shades of the Kirk's General Assembly and Mrs. Thatcher) at least once a year. 

The strategy is obvious. By oozing good intentions and ‘respect', Salmond and the SNP would appear churlish if they responded with attacks and disrespect. How the Nationalists handle this charm offensive isn't yet clear, although their Treasury spokesman Stewart Hosie didn't obviously demur from engaging with the ‘mutual respect' agenda when interviewed recently on the Today Programme.

It won't, of course, be that easy. Although the Conservatives now praise devolution as something New Labour got right and the SNP embrace the neo-liberal economics of Thatcherism, the two parties are still poles apart. The clue is in their respective titles: the Conservative and Unionist Party and the Scottish National Party. No amount of warm words can reconcile opposite constitutional positions.  

Salmond and Cameron are politicians who like taking risks, and a referendum on independence within the next year would be risky for both, but arguably - and certainly in the eyes of the former Scottish Secretary Michael Forsyth - less so for the Conservatives. If an incoming UK Conservative government was to call a snap poll on independence it would almost certainly be won by the Unionist camp, calling Salmond's bluff and setting back the Nationalist cause - a la the Parti Quebecois in Canada - by at least ten years.

Yet it's probably a risk even Cameron would be unwilling to take, indeed he repeated in his conference speech that he would do nothing to put the Union at risk, which arguably a referendum would. Senior Scottish Tory strategists and MSPs, however, think differently, and will continue to press their case before, during and after the general election.

There will be other pressures for David Cameron to deal with, not least from his southern heartlands, i.e. Little Englanders who support the SNP's big idea for entirely different reasons. Indeed, the Tory leader subtly acknowledged the English dimension in his conference speech, comparing ‘People in Scotland who want to leave the United Kingdom and people in England who say let them go'.

Combating the latter cries certainly ought to be easier than tackling the Scottish Government in Edinburgh, but will hardly shore up the already defensive Unionist cause. Helping in this respect will be David Mundell, presumably the new Secretary of State for Scotland (a Cabinet position the Tories consider ‘indispensable', unlike the SNP). Another smart tactician, Mundell will be a key ally in ‘managing' - to use one of his favourite words - the SNP.

It is left to Scottish Conservative leader Annabel Goldie, meanwhile, to depict the SNP as ‘irrelevant' in a general election that ‘is a British election, for the British Parliament, for a British Prime Minister'. Alex Salmond, she said last week, ‘is clearly squaring up to bicker and squabble with a Conservative Government at Westminster just as he has done with the Labour Government'.

The Tories are acutely aware that the inept tactics of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown vis-à-vis the SNP - i.e. pretending they didn't exist - simply enabled Alex Salmond to exploit their petulance. If Cameron becomes prime minister, however, Salmond won't be able to get rid of him. Furthermore, the Tories see it as a reciprocal relationship; David Mundell said last week that he expects Scottish Government ministers to make themselves available to Westminster committees, just as Cameron has promised to put his at the disposal of Holyrood's.

Whatever happens in six months' time it looks set to be a battle between two superb political tacticians. Indeed, the First Minister may finally meet his match in David Cameron. But how will he respond? Salmond has always been pragmatic in his dealings with other parties while maintaining strongly partisan rhetoric, so it seems likely he'll come up with a typically creative compromise.  

David Torrance is a writer and broadcaster, a contributor to ‘The Modern SNP: From Protest to Power' and author of 'We in Scotland: Thatcherism in a Cold Climate' published by Birlinn (£20, £14 on Amazon)
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