Politicians should take the rap when wrong, so Salmond and Cameron better have resignation speeches ready, writes Brian Monteith
Back in January I wrote a column for the Conservative Home website drawing attention to the fact that, were there to be a Yes vote in Scotland’s independence referendum, the Prime Minister would face an overwhelming political case for him to resign. I wrote it intentionally at a time when the No campaign was showing signs of complacency to ensure that everyone in the government realised the scale of the issue being faced.
The referendum is not another general election, serious though they are, where a defeat might be corrected by regaining power in five or ten years. Whatever its outcome, the referendum is likely to be as life-changing and future-shaping as any war or revolution, but is thankfully conducted in a peaceful manner.
If the United Kingdom changes beyond all recognition and the political concept of Great Britain is effectively made redundant (against the wishes of England, Wales and Northern Ireland, whose citizens have put its care in the hands of the Prime Minister) surely he must have to face some degree of responsibility for such a loss?
I pointed out that no comparable damage had been inflicted on the UK by Napoleon, the Kaiser, Hitler or others but that Neville Chamberlain had lost the confidence of the House of Commons after losing the Battle of Norway, making way for Churchill. In an institution where such precedents matter, surely backbench voices would be raised? Meanwhile Liberal Democrats might see it as an opportune moment to split from the coalition – while the Leader of the Opposition could look weak going into a general election if he had not at least tested the confidence of the House.
My reflections were noticed within the party and talked about discreetly, with an even split forming between those who thought Cameron would have to go or could stay on. With some of the polls narrowing at the end of April (although that trend appears to be correcting itself) the debate has now burst upon the public debate in London with front page headlines in the English press and the Prime Minister coming out publicly to deny he would resign.
Well, he would, wouldn’t he? Apart from the natural instinct to defend himself by attempting to share the responsibility with other unionist parties and politicians such as Miliband and Darling, he is smart enough to realise that giving any sense he would be a casualty might appeal to partisan voters that care more about ideological politics than their nation’s future.
Still, the Prime Minister created a rod for his own back when he acknowledged that if in future he renegotiated membership for the UK in the European Union – and those terms were rejected in a referendum – he would resign. Given that David Cameron signed off the Edinburgh Agreement with Alex Salmond that fixed the timing, the wording and electorate for the referendum – and cannot escape his leading role in the strategy he can hardly complain if senior Conservatives feel he should take the ultimate responsibility if Scots reject the UK. Despite appeals to him there was to be no second question and no say for those registered to vote in Scotland who work or live some of the time outside Scotland. It was Cameron’s deal. Period.
All of that said, there is, however, a very strong case for Alex Salmond resigning if there is a No vote. There is no other party and no other figures for the First Minister to hide behind. Unlike Cameron, who never wished to face the prospect of a referendum, Salmond has invested his whole career in this opportunity and if his view is rejected then why should he not do the honourable thing and retire?
Indeed the case is even stronger if Scots reject Salmond’s central policy – and it is the second of these two scenarios that remains the most likely. At university referendum after referendum, at school debates – and throughout Fife and Tayside last week in mock votes taken throughout towns and villages – the No campaign consistently won, and won well.
Raising the question of what happens after a No vote is a highly relevant question, for afterwards we have nearly two more years of an SNP government that has shown little appetite for dealing with the real problems in education, health and local democracy – while it has fixated over constitutional change and organised practically every activity around 18 September.
If there is a No vote the SNP has to come clean about what the next two years entail and get back to reforming our creaking public services, and there is nothing out there that suggests Alex Salmond is the man for this job. Where are the speeches about dealing with the crisis in Scotland’s NHS now and about solving our falling education standards now?
The SNP should have a leadership election and let the likes of Nicola Sturgeon and Mike Russell contest it on the basis of how they would improve Scotland while the SNP remains in power.
None of this is personal, it is business.
The initiative for Cameron or Salmond to go will not come from hothead opponents demanding blood, but from party critics within the Conservatives or SNP, for either leader would be culpable in their judgments, decisions and actions. Such a process is about bringing responsibility and accountability back to our politicians – actions should have consequences and either leader should act honourably and make way for a new figure that can restore confidence in their respective parties.
Apart from the schadenfreude of dogmatic ideologues of either side, resignation will not be a matter for rejoicing – but it can aid the healing process that everyone recognises to be vital as a line can be drawn that helps people on both sides to move on and recover.
If politicians are to regain public trust by demonstrating that they are not in politics for themselves, enjoying the good life their status brings, they need to show they will take responsibility for when they get it wrong and fail.
Ordinary politicians expect such standards of so many others in public life, and the electorate often expresses disappointment when they or officials cling to office when their responsibility is culpable. That our highest leaders should expect to be treated any differently – instead of setting an example – should surely be discouraged if they wish to command public confidence.