Joyce McMillan: David Cameron grasps the thistle at last

David Cameron: the most effective Unionist in Scotland? Picture: Ian Rutherford
David Cameron: the most effective Unionist in Scotland? Picture: Ian Rutherford
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The Prime Minister may be an Old Etonian Tory, but he is the most effective Unionist in Scotland, writes Joyce McMillan

A WEEK, as we all know, is a long time in politics; yet there may still be a few of you who can remember the distant days of 2005, when a fresh-faced young chap called David Cameron began to campaign for the leadership of the Conservative Party. Times were good then, you may recall; there was no need to talk much of public spending cuts, or to hack away at the welfare state.

There were shades of Alex Douglas-Home in Cameron's speech. Picture: TSPL

There were shades of Alex Douglas-Home in Cameron's speech. Picture: TSPL

Instead, David Cameron’s mission – after three successive election defeats – was to “detoxify” the Tory brand, by seeming to take the party back towards the centre ground of British politics. So he began to speak the language of old-fashioned, inclusive, one-nation Toryism, a touch posh and paternalistic, but kindly, liberal-minded, and not driven by rabid free-market ideology.

He spoke of his devotion to the NHS, and flew to the Arctic to express his concern for the environment; and in 2010, he duly became Prime Minister, after entering into a historic pact with the Liberal Democrats.

In recent times, though, that version of David Cameron has often been eclipsed by his less pleasant alter ego, the Flashman-style public school bully who likes beating up the opposition at Prime Minister’s Questions, and who turns on the charm only to defuse opposition to some of the most right-wing social and economic policies ever introduced by a British government.

So it was something of a surprise, yesterday lunchtime, to see the one-nation version of David Cameron suddenly born again, in his Edinburgh speech on the future of the Union. Speaking from the rooftop conference suite of a Grassmarket hotel, his head framed by a spectacular view of Edinburgh Castle, the Prime Minister reverted in a trice to the language of his early campaigning days: warm, passionate, inclusive, deeply liberal.

He love-bombed Scotland with references to our mighty contribution to the history of the Union.

He talked eloquently of the ever-closer personal and economic links between England and Scotland, with the obligatory personal reference to the history of his own family. He freely confessed his party’s political weakness in Scotland, and – in a rare flanking move in British politics – paid lavish and slightly surreal tribute to great past Scottish politicians from other parties, name-checking Keir Hardie and James Maxton, among others.

He referred to himself as a “sensible unionist” who wants to see devolution developed and strengthened, if that is what Scots want. And he affirmed with feeling that he has no interest at all in being “Prime Minister of England”. He repeatedly called the UK “our shared home” and said that he would fight with everything he had to save the Union.

Battle is joined, in other words, between David Cameron and Alex Salmond, over the future of Scotland; and although it is strangely flattering for us Scottish voters to have the two most effective politicians currently operating in Britain vying for our affections, the question has to be whether the Prime Minister’s intervention will have any impact on the SNP’s growing dominance in Scottish politics, or will – as so many SNP supporters presume – prove to be irrelevant, at best.

There are certainly dozens of reasons for Scots to be sceptical about the substance of David Cameron’s speech, which referred to the UK nations as being “stronger, richer, and fairer” together. National strength is a debatable asset if we end up squandering it in vainglorious foreign wars. Wealth in the UK is so ill-divided that extreme inequality is fast becoming a national scandal; and it’s precisely because Scots believe in fairness that they reject the politics of David Cameron’s party.

As for the Prime Minister’s effort to play the 1979 Alex Douglas-Home card of promising more and better devolution if only we vote “no” this time – well, the success or failure of that manoeuvre will depend on the length of our political memories.

Scotland’s SNP government would be very ill-advised, though, in the face of the Cameron campaign, to listen only to the self-reinforcing voices of their own supporters telling one another that Cameron is an old Etonian irrelevance, and that Scots will react negatively to anything he says. His intervention certainly comes late; and it highlights the continuing abject failure of the Unionist parties in Scotland to make anything like a coherent and progressive argument for the Union.

Yet in terms of its political positioning, and the quality of its language, this Cameron speech was better than good; it was outstanding, in its grasp of the truth that in order to win this argument, any British Prime Minister must seem to speak from the centre or centre-left of British politics, must talk the language of cultural diversity and inclusion, must seem open to continuing constitutional reform, and must appear to be defending Britain not because he thinks Scotland incapable of surviving on its own, but because he loves the shape, the history and the potential of the UK as it is.

And although political analysts and activists may easily spot the flaws and contradictions in David Cameron’s argument, it’s worth remembering that in Scotland as elsewhere, the vast majority of people are not interested in the detail of politics. What they see instead is the mood of a debate, the personalities, the imagery, the odd sound-bite; indeed

It’s because of his own skill in creating a general positive mood around the idea of Scotland’s future that Alex Salmond is First Minister today. And now, for the first time in a decade, he has a Unionist opponent who is seriously challenging that narrative, and trying, in culturally rich and resonant language, to conjure up similar positive imagery around the idea of a continuing United Kingdom.

It’s possible that what David Cameron delivered in Edinburgh yesterday – admittedly against poor competition – is the strongest explcitly Unionist speech made in Britain since the 1950’s. And if the First Minister and his party imagine that there are no Scots left who will pause and listen to that mood-music, and perhaps be influenced by it, then they have not read their opinion polls; nor do they know the cautious and pragmatic temper of the nation they govern, and aspire to lead towards ever-greater independence.