The Prime Minister’s decision to avoid a TV debate on Scotland’s referendum is a disservice to his position, writes George Kerevan
There is something very peculiar about the manner in which the Scottish independence debate is being conducted: south of the Border, there is a glaring absence of discussion about the possible break-up of the United Kingdom. The issue hardly rates a mention on the nightly news bulletins except as a “regional item”. David Cameron summed up the mood precisely when he rejected Alex Salmond’s call for a head-to-head television debate: “You want the independence debate to be an argument between you and me; the Scottish Government and UK Government; the SNP and Conservative Party – in fact anything rather than what it really is about. Nor is your argument with the rest of the United Kingdom, it is with the people in Scotland.”
I beg to differ and I do so on behalf of all the people of these islands. For constitutional change on the seismic scale of dissolving the British Union is much more than a purely internal Scottish matter.
On one level, it clearly is an argument between the Scots and the rest of the UK, even if Mr Cameron is (as ever) anxious to exclude ordinary English men and women from having a direct say in how they are governed. But any constitutional rearrangement of Britain will also impact on the people of Wales and Northern Ireland. They too have a right to hear the case for and against such change argued out by their senior elected representatives, the chief of whom is David William Donald Cameron.
True to his peculiar notion that a referendum to dissolve the union is somehow a Scottish affair alone, the Prime Minister believes Alex Salmond should debate on television with Alistair Darling MP, the titular head of the No campaign. Now I have no problems with Alex Salmond debating with Alistair Darling, or indeed anyone else. However, Mr Darling is only a backbench MP, and in the opposition Labour Party to boot. Is it too much in a democracy to ask that the elected Prime Minister debates with the elected First Minister concerning the major fault line in UK constitutional politics?
Some will argue that David Cameron is running scared and thinks he might be bested in a face-to-face with Salmond. Actually, I think that is not the case. Cameron is a very good public and TV performer – why else did his parents send him to Eton? Whereas Ed Miliband had to waste a week memorising his Labour conference speech, Cameron is a past master at extemporising. He also has charm (Eton again) that the pugnacious Alex Salmond frequently fails to exhibit in public.
No, David Cameron is not feart of the First Minister – he just has a different agenda. Basically, Mr Cameron wants to marginalise Salmond and the referendum campaign. He wants to treat them as a sideshow, at least publicly. Of course, that does not extend to giving the Yes campaign a free hand – far from it. In fact, the Whitehall civil service machine has been dragooned into manufacturing arguments to counter Scottish independence on an industrial scale. This involves the drafting no fewer than 13 separate reports.
Here is my point: the issue of the very existence of the United Kingdom is politically transcendental. It cannot be reduced to a calculation regarding party or individual advantage. It is the duty of the highest elected official in the UK – and that is not Alistair Darling – to come out and debate the constitutional issues at hand. The fact that Mr Cameron has ordered Whitehall to produce paper after paper attacking Scottish independence gives the game away. In his heart of hearts, Mr Cameron knows the stakes involved and it is high time he began acting like a statesman.
There is ample precedent. In 1912, the then Liberal Party Government introduced a Bill for Irish Home Rule. This brought North Ireland to the verge of armed insurrection by Protestant unionists. Enter Sir Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty and a hero of our current Prime Minister. Sir Winston was a fervent unionist, though also a supporter of devolution for Ireland. He was only too happy to go to Belfast (despite the political tensions) and debate face-to-face with John Redmond, leader of the Irish National Party.
Sir Winston’s move proved a good deal more dangerous than any modern television debate. Extremists within the Ulster unionist camp (on whose side Sir Winston actually was) immediately threatened to assassinate him if he ventured to Belfast. Fearing a riot, Sir Winston suggested to Mr Redmond that they switch the debate to Manchester. Unwilling to give up on democracy, Sir Winston eventually gave a pro-Union speech in the grounds of the Belfast Celtic Football Club in the Catholic heart of the city.
What is good for Winston Churchill should be good for David Cameron. As Winston knew, a healthy democracy thrives on direct debate between political opponents unmediated by the captive and partisan press. Indeed, taking a leaf from Sir Winston’s book, there is no necessity for Mr Cameron to come to Scotland to debate Alex Salmond. Why not hold the debate in Manchester or Birmingham? That would present the issue as it really is – about the political future of the whole British Isles, not just one corner of it. Holding the Cameron-Salmond debate outside Scotland would require a major concession from the First Minister, but I’m sure he is man enough.
Of course, as an avowed Yes voter, I hope that Alex Salmond would “win” any debate with David Cameron. But that is not why I want to see the two elected leaders face each other. As a Scot brought up on Enlightenment values, I’m turned off by the ding-dong and inane heckling that passes for intellectual discussion in the House of Commons. Instead, I believe that a constructive debate between the Prime Minister and First Minister might give everyone in Britain something new to think about – on both sides of the independence divide.