Scottish independence: Cameron faces a choice between destroying his country or his party

A No vote will be nothing more than a temporary stay of the death sentence

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Each man kills the thing he loves, wrote Oscar Wilde in the Ballad of Reading Gaol, and if David Cameron can find a moment to reflect on that from his cell on political death row, he will appreciate its truth. The only uncertainty for him a few hours before the Scots go to the polls, other than how they will vote, is which of the two things he tells us he loves he will decide to kill to save the other.

Last week, an almost tearful Prime Minister declared that he loves his country even more than he loves his party. Without being as lavish a tribute to his patriotism as he intended – he may well love genital herpes more than a party which by and large despises him – he spoke with every appearance of sincerity.

Unquestionably, it will be a personal heartbreaker for the PM if the Scots vote to destroy that country. Since he stands to be convicted of culpable UK-icide for the complacency typified by his curious decision to leave the devo max option, now offered in a blind panic, off the ballot paper – it will be also be a career-ending catastrophe. 

And if, on the other hand, the Scots vote No and the union survives, it is impossible to imagine how the Conservative Party can continue in its present form. The schism made likelier by the surge of Ukip will become inevitable.

What his frantic 11th-hour rearguard action to salvage the integrity of Great Britain is about, at its core, is playing for time. In the death row analogy, Mr Cameron is not begging the Scots for a full pardon. He is merely petitioning the court of Scottish public opinion to grant him an appeal.

Not being a stupid man, he will know that a No vote will be nothing more than a temporary stay of the death sentence; that if a re-elected Tory government continues to govern as it has, the Scots will demand another referendum within 20 years, and that next time they will assuredly vote Yes.

 

Scotland had bleeding had it with the Tories even before Mrs Thatcher used them as a pit canary for the poll tax, and the poisonous acorn she sowed has grown into a mighty oak of disdain for policies designed less according to fiscal and economic needs than to suck up to right-wing newspapers and their readers in England.

The Scots have been disgusted by the bedroom tax and other privations needlessly visited on the disabled, repelled by the crude and vicious rhetoric about immigrants, and nauseated by the stigmatising of benefits claimants. If the above do not cease, they will feel betrayed and more alienated from Westminster than ever.

So if Mr Cameron seriously wishes to entrench the survival of a reprieved union, he will need to file the Lynton Crosby Easy-To-Follow One Step Guide to Winning Elections in the dustbin, where it richly belongs, and steer his party to the centre ground. A general election campaign built on inflating fears about migrants will inform the Scots that, for all his semi-lachrymose blandishments, nothing has changed.

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'Referendum cupcakes' featuring a Scottish Saltire, (L) a Union flag (R) and a question mark (Below) symbolising the 'undecided voter' are pictured at a bakery in Edinburgh, Scotland.

The small problem about repositioning the Tories as a centrist party, of course, is that many of his MPs will no more tolerate that than Scotland will tolerate the status quo. Miles to the right of their leader as they are, resentful and suspicious of his metropolitan ways, and fearful of Ukip, a sizeable and perhaps lethal number of his backbenchers will go berserk if he makes an electoral present to Nigel Farage by leaving all the anti-immigration oratory to him.

Ever since becoming leader a decade ago, Mr Cameron has been caught in a pincer movement between the moderate wing of his party, which understands that the public will not elect a nasty, regressive government, and the nutty wing which holds the belief that the way to a majority is pretending that the clock can be turned back to 1956. This increasingly fragile coalition between modern One Nation Toryism and retrograde post-Thatcherite Conservatism, stretched close to breaking point by the rumbling civil war over Europe, will snap if the PM drags the party to the left to assuage Scottish sensibilities.

If he does no such thing – if on Friday he sighs with relief at a narrow win, decides that business as usual will suffice, and takes Mr Crosby’s advice to use the dog whistle as the anti-Ukip nuclear warhead in his electoral arsenal next May – it will prove a brief reprieve. It would be the clinching evidence for the Scots that Westminster politicians are pathologically treacherous wee beasties, and that the vow of home rule – and what a scrap Mr Cameron will have getting his backbenchers to vote for that bill - was a cynical bribe. In 10 or 15 years, Scotland will vote on independence again, and the union will be gone.

Quite a Sophie’s Choice it is, between sowing the seeds that will destroy either his country or his party, that faces David Cameron should a majority of Scots ignore Wilde’s apercu that “our ambition should be to rule ourselves”. But if he is as sincere as he sounded last week, it is no choice at all. For the union he says he loves the most is to go on living, the Conservative and Unionist Party as we know it today must die by his hand.

 

We’re clever! Who cares how or why?

Any and every ranking list comes with this caveat. A few years ago, the England football team was ranked No 3 (not in England, but in the whole wide world).

And so to the new rankings of the planet’s best 100 universities by the publisher QS. The good news is that we are much cleverer than we realised, with four in the top six (Cambridge and Imperial London share the no. 2 spot – a place above the barber shop quartet ponces of Harvard – with Oxford and University College London joint sixth).

Equally impressive is that 29 of the 100 are British. This is so heartening that I refuse to question the methodology in any way. If the list seems skewed towards science, with the invention of an edible water bottle cited as a key factor in Imperial’s rise, Michael Gove will be proud as he glances on from his exile in the Chief Whip’s office.

The less good news is that we aren’t as staggeringly brilliant as the bare statistics suggest. Australia, which not only has a population about a third of ours but is in fact Australia, has eight. By any per capita formula devised by the scholars of Imperial during a break at the edible water cooler, that makes it almost as smart as Britain, which is clearly a concern. Still we beat the Germans (80 million, and only 13 in the Hot One Hundred) into a cocked hat, and it isn’t every day you get the chance to say that.

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