This week, I want you to consider the political accountability of David Cameron, Alex Salmond and Ed Miliband, in that order.
Back in January, I wrote on this site about the enormity of the implications for British politics as conducted at Westminster if there were to be a Yes vote in the Scottish referendum on independence. It seemed rather obvious to me, but like the elephant in the room no-one wanted to talk about what it would mean for the Prime Minister if he were to preside over the break-up of Britain – or how there was likely to be a constitutional crisis around the conduct and possible outcome of the 2015 General election. I still stand by what I said in those columns.
There is a very strong case that in the event of a Yes vote the Prime Minister would have to resign. On the face of it this may seem unfair; as Dan Hannan put it in a tweet this week, “it’s idiotic to suggest that the Prime Minister might resign over a referendum in which he doesn’t get a vote, and in which he has barely intervened”. But politics is rarely, at a glance, fair or logical and when one looks deeper into the circumstances Cameron does have a responsibility that he cannot shirk. It was he who negotiated and signed off the Edinburgh Agreement that set the timing, the question and the nature of the electorate.
There was then, and remains now, much discontent that the timing was too late, suiting the SNP game plan and should have been earlier; that the question does not give enough clarity about what is at stake; and that the many ex-pat Sots and service personnel entitled to vote in general elections on the Scottish register were excluded from the referendum.
The Prime Minister may not have a vote but he still carries a responsibility. Although Chamberlain did not command a ship or fire a gun at the Battle of Norway he lost the confidence of the House. Ironically he was replaced by his junior the First Lord of Admiralty, Winston Churchill, who although closer to the battle in line of command was viewed as the nation’s saviour because he best understood the calamity that Chamberlain had misjudged from day one.
I happen to remain confident that a No vote will be won but I also happen to think it will be despite key misjudgements made in framing the referendum at the outset and the immobile and stubborn leadership emanating from Labour politicians.
In the likely event of a No vote the same responsibility and accountability that I have argued should apply to the Prime Minister should also apply to the First Minister – and indeed the case against him is even more substantial.
It was Salmond, not Cameron, who forced the referendum upon the Scottish people and to have the central philosophy of his whole political life rejected despite his strong position, the buck would stop with him.
The Scottish Government has practically put its administration on hold, with every decision it has to make seen first through the prism of the referendum so that grievances may be contrived and divisiveness encouraged. Every effort has gone into delaying as far as possible difficult decisions that might make the SNP unpopular, lest it taint the perceptions of independence and the Yes campaign.
The publication of the SNP’s White Paper and the accompanying roadshow – all £1.3m of it at the taxpayers’ expense – is a scandal that requires a reckoning. After years of ridiculing and goading Westminster politicians the SNP administration would require a new peace-maker at the helm to ensure tempers were calmed and relationships rebuilt so that the governance of Scotland could proceed smoothly in its remaining two years in power.
But just as Salmond would need to recognise a No vote would be the appropriate time for him to retire and pass the SNP’s torch on to someone new, and just as Cameron would need to take responsibility for his role in the united Kingdom being rejected by Scots – there is also a large degree of responsibility that would have to be faced up to by Edward Miliband.
While I believe the Prime Minister misjudged his reaction to Salmond’s 2011 election victory and the immediate demand for a referendum, his performance since the campaign parameters were agreed has been more sure-footed and beyond reproach. Indeed, he can be praised for his often positive approach by talking up the benefits of Scots remaining British – a tone of debate that other unionists should be seeking to replicate.
Unfortunately, the leadership available from Miliband has been lamentable, and that’s putting it kindly. The campaign for a No vote and the management of Better Together has always had Labour in the driving seat. Given its political dominance amongst the Scottish unionist parties – it regularly polls more than the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives put together – this is only natural. The figureheads and majority of placemen in the campaign are Labour through and through. The other parties defer to Labour – but the campaign’s problems are due to Labour in-fighting, Labour complacency and Labour incompetence.
While Alistair Darling has been a sobering foil to Salmond’s bluff and bluster, the Better Together campaign is lacking in inspiration – not so much an audacity of hope as a paucity of hope. It needn’t be this way, for the story of the UK is one of the greatest ever told and deserves to be heard.
Now the hapless Douglas Alexander has been parachuted in to give Darling support – but where is the Scottish leader Johann Lamont? Why is Jim Murphy so quiet?
The Labour campaign in Scotland is a walking, talking disaster that would give Godzilla a run for its money. Because it is a party in opposition it cannot find in itself the words to deliver a positive narrative that does not first require it to return to power. This is self-defeating, for the point of a political union is the sharing of sovereignty – including the democratic possibility of losing from time to time – in return for the gains of creating greater opportunity and the spreading of risk.
It leaves open the argument – put by the SNP on a daily basis – that the only way to avoid another Tory government is to leave the Union.
The Labour leader needs to bang heads together and embrace the philosophical reality that Union means Scotland is better off being larger in the UK – even with a Tory government – than it would be as a smaller independent Scotland run by Labour or the SNP.
I do not doubt that a Conservative leader in opposition would say the same about Labour being in power were the tables turned. Miliband’s abject failure to put country before party and drive his team forward with positive arguments risks the prize for all unionists.
If a Yes vote were to become reality the Prime Minister will have to face tough questions, but the role of the Leader of the Opposition will deserve scrutiny, too – for it is he who has the authority to deliver the result all unionist want.
However, when all flaws in Miliband’s performance are taken in the round, Conservatives must ask is would they really want him to be held accountable in such circumstances? Would it not be better that he be left in place to wreck and divide the Labour party and lead it to a general election catastrophe?