Brian Monteith: Cameron can turn his legacy around

David Cameron and Nicola Sturgeon are already discussing Scotland's position, but the PM could do further in federalisation and devolution of power for the UK. Picture: Ken Jack/Demotix
David Cameron and Nicola Sturgeon are already discussing Scotland's position, but the PM could do further in federalisation and devolution of power for the UK. Picture: Ken Jack/Demotix
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THE PM may only have a few years left in ­office, but there are plenty of ways he can leave his mark more positively, writes Brian Monteith

DAVID Cameron has been quick to attempt to pull the country together after the momentous general election outcome that has left Scotland so unusually divided from the rest of the UK. But he is a man now in a hurry, for thanks to his revelation that he would not serve a full second term if re-elected Prime Minister he has a lot to do during his remaining time in power.

A referendum on Britain's membership of the EU is already on the cards. Picture: Getty

A referendum on Britain's membership of the EU is already on the cards. Picture: Getty

Whether or not he meant to say he would seek a change in the Conservative Party leadership before the next election in 2020 it is now on public record – and you can bet your house on a number of his colleagues holding him to that promise. The timeline of what is in his political diary – a likely European Union membership referendum in the second half of 2016 or the first half of 2017 – and the need to give his successor a good 12 to 18 months in the job suggests a leadership election in 2018 with hustings at the annual conference in October. That would mean Cameron having a minimum of three and maximum of four years left as Prime Minister.

Not only does Cameron have to renegotiate the UK’s EU membership terms, and then win a referendum that will come from it, he also faces the prospect of a further Scottish independence referendum if the SNP chooses to include that policy in its manifesto for the 2016 Holyrood election next May and goes on to triumph again. And after the SNP’s electoral success ten days ago and the poor state of the Labour Party in Scotland, few will question the SNP’s chances of achieving a further victory.

So what should David Cameron do? He already has his plans for the EU renegotiation in hand (some observers allege it is already all agreed between the main players, bar the shouting) but the scale of the SNP’s election result must have surprised him as much as his own overall majority did, so the available options will need to be worked out and thought through.

By becoming the first Conservative leader to win an election since John Major 23 years ago in 1992, Cameron will have his place in the history books – but that may not be enough. Major is probably best remembered for the economic shambles of exiting the EU’s exchange rate mechanism later the same year, then presiding over a party divided by the Maastricht Treaty and an administration dominated by sleaze. Just as Harold Wilson’s greatest achievement is possibly establishing the Open University, Major’s could be establishing the National Lottery, although he is not given enough of the credit for laying the foundations of the Northern Ireland peace agreement.

Cameron is only human and surely shall, in his rare quieter moments of solitude, be musing what his own legacy will be. Presiding over Scotland leaving the UK is not a memory he will want, yet he knows that if the UK votes to leave the EU, then the SNP will try to use that outcome as a reason for Scotland to remain inside the EU as an independent country.

Even if the UK remains in the EU, the SNP challenge will remain significant and the Smith Commission has not placated demands for greater powers at Holyrood. While delivering the Smith recommendations will proceed apace, it is already acknowledged it will not be enough and that changes in English legislative processes will also be required.

The mood among Conservatives in London for giving the SNP full fiscal autonomy is hardening and many are saying it should now be done, and done quickly. The theory goes that only when Scotland is faced with raising the funds for its own more generous welfare and public spending commitments, together with a contribution to the UK for its central services such as defence and international affairs, will the Scottish public begin to appreciate that the country must live within its means and stop voting for spendthrift parties like the SNP.

Of course it’s not quite as simple as that – for one thing, full fiscal autonomy (like the absurd and empty term “devo max”) means different things to different people. The SNP thinks it should mean that the Barnett Formula for transferring funds from Westminster to Holyrood would continue, while the Conservatives would expect it to be abolished. The truth is between the two, for there would have to be a new formula to cover the new arrangements – Barnett, but not as we know it – and the transfers could go both ways.

What cannot be denied is that full fiscal autonomy would mean a poorer financial arrangement to Scotland, given that under funding on a needs basis Wales is currently treated unfairly and could be expected to receive a greater share of any funds being redistributed around the UK, meaning Scotland receiving less, or paying out.

For any settlement to be lasting it will have to be accepted by the Scottish people as having a large degree of permanency, or the SNP will keep suggesting that more can still be obtained. Cameron has to end this merry-go-round of unstable devolutionary settlements and the only way to achieve this is to lock in a new Scottish agreement into a UK-wide constitutional reform.

As well as establishing a federal or quasi-federal arrangement that could satisfy Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, Cameron could go further on his promises to give powers to the largest English cities. He could also time such changes to reviewing the electoral voting systems and completing the reform of the House of Lords, a constitutional anachronism that remains one of Tony Blair’s many unfinished botched jobs.

By including in the Queen’s Speech the establishment of a UK Constitutional Convention and bringing forward proposals next year, Cameron could not just rebalance the UK institutions but weaken the political rhetoric of the nationalists. A Lords with a majority or possibly all of its members elected, including representation from the federal parliaments, would be a counterweight to the Westminster bubble.

Such a reformist approach would be in the tradition of Disraeli and give Cameron a legacy as the greatest One Nation politician of the modern era.

Does Cameron have the guile to take on such a challenge? As the Conservative leader who first chose to introduce and then delivered gay marriage reforms, at the cost of division in his own party, David Cameron should not be underestimated.