Euan McColm: Cameron fails to explain UK’s benefits

ANYONE listening should have been left in absolutely no doubt: David Cameron is passionate about the United Kingdom. He said as much.

Prime Minister David Cameron addresses Scottish Conservative conference. Picture: Neil Hanna

As his brief speech to the Scottish Conservative Party conference in Stirling reached its climax, the Prime Minister rallied the gathered with the promise that their party would fight to preserve the union, “head, heart, body, and soul”.

The crowd, such as it was, creaked obligingly to its feet and delivered the necessary ovation. But while Cameron may have said some of the right things during his speech on Friday, it was distinctly lacking in that heart and soul he described.

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What we heard was a rather predictable – and far from invigorating – case from the Prime Minister on why Scotland should remain inside the UK. There was the currency issue, of course, there was Europe, there was employment, and there was the banking crisis.

In all of these areas, said the Prime Minister, we are “better together”. Even the most assiduous student of the constitutional debate so far would have struggled to find something new there.

I suppose, given that the Yes campaign remains stalled in the polls with fewer than a third of Scots currently persuaded of the SNP’s case for independence, an att­itude of “if it ain’t broke...” may have had something to do with the PM’s pretty drab pitch. But whatever Cameron’s reasons for delivering the speech he did, he put head before heart in just about every line.

Yes, there was mention of the NHS (that’s always good for getting us sentimental and misty-eyed), Team GB’s success at last year’s Olympics, and World War Two’s D-Day landings, the 69th anniversary of which fell the day before Cameron’s speech, but there was precious little emotional pull.

One was left wondering exactly why David Cameron wants to defend the UK, left doubting whether he genuinely cares about Scotland’s future. Of course he is the leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party, so support for the current constitutional settlement forms part of the job. But there was no sense that Scotland particularly mattered to him, or to the UK.

The Prime Minister told us much about benefits the union – as far as he sees the world – brings to Scotland. What was missing was anything substantial about what benefits Scotland brings to the union; what was missing was why he cherishes Scotland.

The Yes campaign’s emotional cup, on the other hand, runneth over, passion splashing all around. At the heart of its message is the belief (or the enthusiastic proclamation, at least) that Scotland is special. That may be tactical flattery but who doesn’t like a little sweet talking? We Scots simply love being told how marvellous we are.

The Prime Minister – and all on the No side of this argument – underestimate the power of the SNP’s story of Scottish Pride at their peril.

I’m not alone in feeling that Cameron got it wrong on Friday. From within the No camp I heard disappointment at a speech that rehashed tired old lines and failed to properly reach out to Scots.

It’s difficult, right enough, to be a Tory in Scotland and harder still to be one who’s just visiting. Nobody from the No side wants any Conservative, never mind an old Etonian PM from the deep South, to be considered a leading light in their campaign. Even Tories agree that would be foolish.

But Cameron cannot avoid this debate. His interventions, when they come, will always be attacked and ridiculed by the nationalists (according to the SNP’s Westminster leader Angus Robertson, Friday’s “alternated between a tissue of tedium and a farrago of fabrication”) but he might make those attacks all the more difficult if he avoided the impression that it’s Scotland that has everything to lose should the a Yes majority prevail in September 2014.

In fairness, the Prime Minister has handled the politics of the referendum well, so far. His decision, as soon as the SNP won its majority in 2011, to assist in ensuring the plebiscite would go ahead, unhindered, was clever.

First Minister Alex Salmond may have been preparing for a long and drawn-out process, wrangling over this detail and that, but Cameron couldn’t do enough for him.

Having promptly recognised the SNP’s authority to call a vote on Scotland’s future in the UK, Cameron displayed remarkable enthusiasm: You want a referendum? No problem. How can I help? You want 16 and 17-year-olds to get the vote? Sounds good to me.

The stinger was Cameron’s focus that this should be a simple one question, Yes or No referendum. Salmond’s wish, that there should be a second question on whether Scots wanted more powers for the Scottish Parliament, was snuffed out as Cameron sped the process along.

But that bit of smart politics isn’t enough. As summer turns to autumn, the Better Together campaign will introduce a new dimension to its story, involving pro- union campaigners from outside Scotland. They’ll unite to urge Scots “please stay”. Rather than explaining what they believe Scotland gets out of partnership with England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, they’ll describe they way in which they believe Scotland enriches the union.

That’s what was sorely lacking from Cameron’s speech and – the next time he travels north to participate – he should make up for the oversight.

The debate over the practicalities of independence has been reduced to a tiresome slanging match where the other side is always lying.

That’s a turn-off for voters who are far less interested in petty sniping than some politicians might imagine.

And if the battle to persuade with detail is ever harder to fight, then the emotional side of the argument becomes all the more powerful.

Nobody expected a Salmond-style Braveheart call from Cameron, but he can’t continue to rely on the same arguments that don’t get through.

Scots need to know why it matters to the rest of the United Kingdom that we stay. That’s something which, on his flying visit to Stirling, David Cameron resolutely failed to tell us.

Twitter: @euanmccolm