Scottish referendum: To the victor, the carping and the criticism

If you want to know who won the referendum, look at who resigned afterwards

John Rentoul
Sunday 21 September 2014 17:57

During a game, sports commentators like to give the impression that the outcome is finely balanced, all to play for, on a knife-edge. As soon as it’s over they give way to pundits, some of them the same people, whose job it is to point out why the result happened and why it had always been obvious what it was going to be. This is known as the “shocking defending” school of commentary.

It is the same with closely fought elections. While the campaign is under way, it is on a knife-edge. As soon as it is over, it was a case of “shocking defending”. Except that something odd happened after the Scottish referendum. As soon as it was clear that independence was going to be defeated by a larger margin than the polls suggested, the analysis was all about how David Cameron had got it wrong.

Instead of explaining how the judo Prime Minister used his opponent’s momentum against him, and instead of pointing out that Alex Salmond had had 307 years to think of the answers to questions that were bound to be thrown at him, the pundits said that Cameron’s defence of the Union had been shocking and he had been lucky to escape with his trousers.

Instead of praising Cameron’s judgement in keeping the Union together, the pundits castigated him for nearly losing the referendum and having to promise a mess of constitutional pottage to win it at the last moment. He was accused of letting Salmond decide the referendum question, and of failing to campaign vigorously enough until he was panicked by the YouGov opinion poll a fortnight ago.

This is unfair. It would have been foolish, and undemocratic, to deny the Scots the right to decide their future, as Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish Prime Minister who refuses Catalonia a vote, is discovering. As for the question on the ballot paper, it is true that Salmond wanted a third option, because he wasn’t confident of winning a straight Yes vote. He wanted “devo-max”, and if that had been an option it probably would have won, because people tend to prefer the middle way.

It may sound neat to say that devo-max is what Cameron has ended up with anyway, but it means the devolution of everything except defence and foreign policy, which is very different from the new powers for the Scottish Parliament promised by the Westminster party leaders. If you want to know who won the referendum, look at who announced his resignation after it.

As for Cameron’s supposed failure to have campaigned more energetically, this substitutes cliché for analysis. I fear I may be responsible for the phrase “the essay crisis prime minister”, but it does not apply in this case. It would have been a mistake for Cameron, a Home Counties Tory, to have campaigned more, earlier (or to have agreed to a TV debate with Salmond). No one saw the Yes surge coming, apart from nationalists who always see a Yes surge coming, but once it happened Cameron and Ed Miliband were right to ditch Prime Minister’s Questions and to go to Scotland to make their late appeals.

To the extent that the Yes surge was caused by the collapse of the Labour vote, it would have made more sense to blame Ed Miliband, but most of the post-match pundits hadn’t even noticed that he had been on the pitch.

Instead, the vindication of the Prime Minister’s game-plan was greeted by hand-wringing about the constitutional damage done by his last-minute, ill-considered concessions.

Cameron’s statement on the morning after the referendum certainly had its faults. But what was wrong with it was its crude attempt to make trouble for Labour rather than haste or lack of consideration. The stuff about “English votes for English laws” has been talked about by Conservatives for decades, and was even in the party’s manifesto at the last election. The reason no one has ever done anything about it is that it is a daft idea. The House of Commons has to be a sovereign body of representatives who are equals. It would not work if some MPs could vote on some things but not on others. But the principle is enough to embarrass Miliband, who needs the votes of Scottish Labour MPs.

The Labour leader has been curiously absent from the Scottish debate. The son of Gordon Brown had to rely on Daddy to get him out of trouble. But I thought the Labour leader had it right, for once, in his speech on Friday, when he said that people “were not just asking questions about the constitution and about the way our politics works”: they were also interested in jobs and the economy.

The referendum post-match analysis ought to give Cameron credit for winning it. It ought to criticise Salmond for his shocking defending, although he has now criticised himself. And it ought to ask of Miliband: what is the point of him? But politics is cruel, and the Prime Minister will get scant thanks for having saved the Union.

Twitter: @JohnRentoul

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