Why won’t David Cameron debate Alex Salmond over independence? While he’s admitted publicly that he would be a turn off north of the border as far as voters are concerned, that’s not the main reason. Scotland is insignificant with regard to the Tories’ electoral fortunes come the 2015 Westminster general election, while further he’s in a no-win situation regarding his own backbench MPs.
The truth is that the Tories don’t like him. They put up with his attempts to drag the party towards the centre up until the 2010 general election because it seemed to promise victory. But it did not work out like that. Cameron failed to win a majority and only scrambled into Downing Street thanks to a coalition with the Liberals, who back bench Tory MPs detest.
Tory MPs are regularly rebelling and voting against the coalition government. Only last week Cameron struggled to win a vote against the proposed removal of the right of foreign criminals to avoid deportation if they have family living in the UK. Ninety-seven rebellious Tories, relieved of the pressure of the Tory Whip, voted to back the measure despite its likely representing a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Under pressure, Cameron announced Conservative ministers would abstain, so as not to be seen soft over immigration and Europe, relying on Labour and the Liberal Democrats to defeat the measure. In other words Cameron could not bring himself to vote in support of his own government and had to rely on Ed Miliband who – it’s said in Westminster – he detests.
Tory MPs and the party’s grass roots are alienated from the Notting Hill cabal they see as running the party. Cameron loyalists are being de-selected and faced with the rise of UKIP there is a sense of panic. Polls show that on current form Cameron cannot win a majority at Westminster and suggest that he might take a beating in May’s Euro elections.
The Scottish referendum matters for the British ruling class and for Cameron (no more shooting hapless stags on his step father in law’s Islay estate). But if the result was to go against them short term expediency means its better Cameron does not intervene directly, and does not take the can for losing, than taking up the challenge to debate Salmond and risking the further ire of Tory MPs if he’s seen to lose.
There is nervousness at Westminster that a Yes vote is going to happen on 18 September, and that even if it does not Scotland is on an inexorable exit path from the Union.
The supposed miracle recovery of the British economy would, you might think, reassure the London based elite that the Scots won’t want to quit boom time Britain. But that growth is concentrated on a bubble economy in London, centred on finance and a property boom, which affects but a few pockets elsewhere – In Scotland only an elite based in Edinburgh and Aberdeen. Elsewhere talk of the good times returning must seem a sick joke.
What also affects people is that Britain has suffered a collapse in living standards not seen in anyone’s lifetime. The lack of investment which characterises the UK economy means profits and growth relies heavily on keeping labour costs low. We are not likely to see a surge in wage levels unless people start fighting for it. In the public sector the government must maintain the cap on pay because the budget deficit has hardly been dented despite the austerity programme.
In some ways the sight of the City of London partying once more while the rest struggle to pay heating bills and put dinner on the table can add a sense of bitterness to the referendum campaign. It will also raise suspicions that the British ruling class are so committed to boosting the financial service sector they really could not give a damn over anything else. The ghost of Thatcher is walking the land.
Lastly, it seems unlikely that UKIP will not do well south of the border in the Euro elections. The effect of that will be to ensure the three main parties at Westminster try to compete as to who is toughest on immigration and on Europe.
Now it would be daft to say that racism does not exist in Scotland nor that people resent Brussels but success for UKIP can only highlight the differences between Scotland and England and many will find this contest as to who is the nastiest party abhorrent.
From the end of the 19th century through until 1997 and Blair’s first landslide victory the Conservatives were the “natural” party of government for the British ruling class. The rebellions and de-selections we are now seeing are alien to its reputation as a disciplined party liking the firm smack of control. Cameron looks to be losing control.
The likely result of the 2015 Westminster election, on current form, is that Miliband will make it to Downing Street, quite probably in coalition with the Liberal Democrats. That prospect might rally traditional Labour voters behind a No vote in September but it does not raise much enthusiasm. Miliband and Ed Balls scored points by banging on about the “Cost of Living Crisis” but they are committed to austerity. Miliband might be cautious about intervening overly much in the referendum because even if it’s a No vote he will alienate many who’d vote Labour in a Westminster election but not a Holyrood one.
All of this lies behind that nervousness in ruling circles over the outcome of the referendum.