David Cameron is either the savviest political strategist in the land or the most dim-witted.
I haven’t decided yet.
His comments to journalists ruling out a second independence referendum are a case in point.
He said: “I think it is important that a referendum is legal and properly constituted and that is what we had, and it was decisive, so I do not see the need for another one.”
At first glance, this looks like a bone-headed move. An English Tory prime minister (might as well throw “toff” and “public schoolboy” in here too) has just told Scotland it can’t have another referendum. No matter what Scots think; no matter what their elected representatives say. Any mandate delivered by the Scottish people via the ballot box would be invalidated with an imperious swish of Cameron’s hand.
If Nicola Sturgeon didn’t tell the French ambassador she was gunning for a Tory victory in May, maybe she should have. For Cameron has saved her from her own party by taking a legally binding referendum off the table. The SNP used to be divided between gradualists and fundamentalists; now the gradualists are those who want a second referendum as soon as feasible and the fundies the ones with signs in their garden reading “Independent Scotland. Population: 1,617,989”.
Imagine if she had been bounced into pledging a re-run in the manifesto for the 2016 Holyrood election, a poll she is all but guaranteed to win. She would find herself saddled with a constitutional do-over and no clear majority for independence in the country, let alone more coherent answers on currency, oil revenue or EU membership.
In those circumstances, Scotland might have rejected a breakaway for a second time, if by a narrower margin. Such a defeat would take independence off the table for a generation — a real-world generation, not an SNP generation.
Now she doesn’t have to worry about any of this. She can leverage Cameron’s intervention to pry some more soft Unionists, already unhappy with the emerging Scotland Bill settlement, over to the Yes column. In kiboshing another vote in this Parliament, the Prime Minister — a Conservative and Unionist prime minister, no less — might have made it easier for the nationalists to win a second plebiscite when it does happen.
That’s one way to look at Cameron’s comments. Here is another: Maybe, instead of walking into an SNP trap, the Tory leader knows exactly what he is doing. Maybe he figures that there’s nothing for him to win in Scotland and so nothing to lose either. By ruling out a second referendum on his watch, Cameron riles the Scots and keeps them voting SNP, making it nigh on impossible for Labour to win an election any time soon.
At the same time, he gets to remind the Scottish Government that for all its highfalutin talk about mandates and sovereign will, the constitution is reserved to the UK Parliament. That body, not Holyrood, will decide when and if another referendum is held.
There’s a little jab of revenge too. You give me a bloody nose over fox-hunting, you can whistle for your second referendum.
There are risks for Cameron. The Scottish Government could hold a consultative vote and exert moral and even international pressure on the UK to recognise the outcome, or at least permit another legal referendum. That is unlikely under the calm and steady leadership of Nicola Sturgeon.
The SNP could still — and were always going to — raise merry hell during the Tory divisions leading up to the EU referendum. The Prime Minister’s majority is paper-thin; he doesn’t need any more enemies.
Nicola Sturgeon’s proven deftness of touch will be called for too. She has spent her life climbing the ranks of a political party only to find she is leading a quasi-devotional movement. For too many SNP members, independence is not merely sensible but obvious — too obvious to be left to the waxing and waning of public sentiment. The voters, they assure themselves, must have been converted to Yes in their droves by the lacklustre execution of The Vow. If the constitution is your whole world and you see it through the prism of betrayal and grievance, you would want a consultative referendum with haste.
The First Minister will have to be firm and if need be remind them who’s in charge. Her “material change” test remains sound and the most reliable route to independence at this time.
Another danger lurks for the Nationalists. If Cameron has put independence off the agenda for the next five years, and Sturgeon is happy to go along with that, Scottish politics returns to bread-and-butter issues like health, education, justice and the economy. Here the Edinburgh government finds itself with a mixed record.
Shorn of their flags and foam fingers, the SNP might find themselves a normal political party again, at the mercy of voters anxious for results. That would be no bad thing for effective public policymaking but a challenge for Nicola Sturgeon’s party.
There are rewards and pitfalls to Cameron’s gambit for the Tories and SNP alike. But for Labour, this is a tall, cold glass of bad. It can hurt them electorally in Scotland and politically in England, a few more kicks to a wounded beast.
Once again, David Cameron is playing politics with the future of the United Kingdom. This is high-wire stuff: He could pull it off with aplomb — or he could plummet gracelessly to the ground below, bringing the Union down around his head.
Originally published on STV News. Feature image © UK in Italy by Creative Commons 2.0.