Tom Gallagher: Tories fear Labour over independence

Alistair Darling is about the only figure in the Labour Party who commands widespread respect. Picture: PA
Alistair Darling is about the only figure in the Labour Party who commands widespread respect. Picture: PA
Share this article
Have your say

Tom Gallagher argues ‘Cameroons’ would rather risk a referendum upset than let Alistair Darling hog the spotlight

IN PUBLIC, the three established British parties insist that foiling the SNP’s plans to take Scotland out of the Union is near the top of their priorities in 2014.

In a recent column, the influential conservative journalist Charles Moore protested about the feeble performance of the governing parties against Alex Salmond. He was clearly referring to the Tories. Last month, for the same newspaper, Iain Martin openly complained about senior Tory figures conspiring against Alistair Darling, the head of the cross-party Better Together campaign. He quoted a story in the Financial Times from December in which senior officials and a Cabinet minister complained about Darling’s supposedly weak performance in the referendum campaign.

Other briefings have shown that the Tories fear Darling’s return to front-line British politics. Labour is not trusted on the economy, but the former chancellor enjoys a degree of public respect because, before 2010, he distanced himself from some of the decisions of prime minister Gordon Brown, ones that were soon perceived as having worsened the recession.

There are plenty of British-minded senior Tories, such as Aberdeen-raised Michael Gove, who are unlikely to have much truck with Darling-bashing. But ranged against them are Tories whose electoral universe is confined to England and Wales. Scotland returns a solitary Tory to Westminster. Their feel for Scotland is an increasingly vestigial one. There are, however, 40 Labour MPs and another 11 Liberal Democrats in Scotland. It is a natural Tory instinct to wish to see many of these seats being denied to their rivals. The only party that can accomplish this is the SNP.

Only three of the Lib Dem seats in Scotland appear safe and many more are, arguably, beyond saving. The party has already suffered a meltdown at Holyrood for underestimating the degree of Scottish antipathy to Margaret Thatcher and forming a governing coalition with her party. Scottish memories are long and often unforgiving.

Labour is on boggy ground in plenty of places where its vote used to be weighed rather than counted. During this marathon referendum campaign, the SNP – through its popular front Yes Scotland – has made inroads into Labour territory, especially in the west of Scotland. Surveys show the most solid backing for independence is from the ranks of the unemployed and lower-income groups (particularly men).

An unsentimental Tory strategist like the Australian Lynton Crosby is bound to have spotted a chink in the enemy’s armour. For this foreigner, the enemy is not the movement hell bent on breaking-up Britain but the recently governing Labour Party, which has been revealed to be quite capable of returning from the political dead.

Darling is about the only figure in the party who commands widespread respect, so it would be unnatural not to clip his wings and deny him a triumph in September’s referendum. An inconclusive pro-Union vote would be troubling for Labour. It could set the scene for the SNP emerging with 15 to 20 seats in 2015, triggering a hung parliament.

Alex Salmond is a known quantity at Westminster. He even resigned from his Scottish seat in 2001 to base himself in London for four years. The SNP leader is cordially detested by Labour chiefs because his party appears to threaten their comeback. But Tories, who are not granite unionists, can afford to take a more relaxed view of this northern insurgent. Some view him as a highly pragmatic politician out for what he can get and prepared to bargain for an enhanced degree of autonomy within the Union. He is undoubtedly a conviction politician on the territorial issue. But on issues that dominate the business of governance, especially in the social and economic fields, he also shares much of the liberal progressivism of Tory modernisers.

Despite his egalitarian rhetoric, he is also an elitist content with working through civil servants and reliable interest groups. He works very smoothly with a mandarin imported from England, Sir Peter Housden, who has adjusted the bureaucracy completely to the SNP’s tastes.

The ascendancy of these centrist Tories, “the Cameroons”, will surely end if they are booted out in 2015. So party strategists operating in the conspiracy-laden atmosphere of Westminster are unlikely to shrink from unconventional ways of keeping Labour down.

What if the SNP held the balance of power in 2015 and David Cameron proposed a deal that involved redefining key elements of the British state? Would Salmond be dismissive if Scotland was invited to be a co-equal partner in a dual monarchy with the rest of the UK? This would involve separate coronations in Edinburgh and London, the Queen reverting to being Elizabeth I of Scotland and her son and grandson being King Charles I and King William II of Scotland. Of course, more practical forms of power-sharing would need to follow, just as happened in 1867 when a dual monarchy ended decades of territorial feuding between the two main components of the Hapsburg empire, Austria and Hungary.

The dual monarchy was also the model for a British-Irish union dreamt of by the founder of Sinn Fein, Arthur Griffith, something that a keen student of Irish history like Salmond must be aware of. It is something that British negotiators would eagerly have signed up to if it was still on the table after 1916.

If a continuation of Tory and possibly Lib Dem rule in England requires such an accommodation with nationalism in Scotland, then a referendum upset might be an acceptable risk to take in order to keep Labour at bay.

• Tom Gallagher is emeritus professor of politics at Bradford University