15 October 2012

Cameron: a willing actor in Salmond's drama?

Just a brief supplementary observation on top of what one reader described as this afternoon's whistle-stop tour through the main implications of the draft independence referendum Order in Council, published by Scottish and Westminster governments today.  Looking at the official snaps taken, and the footage being broadcast as I write into homes the length and breadth of Scotland, one can't help but be struck by how far and how successfully Salmond has been able to cast the Prime Minister in Alex's preferred role, at the end of the first act of this constitutional drama.  

A photograph does not an independent nation-state make, but they project important images, make subtle connections, inflect credibility, and arguably do much more work in making institutions credible and imaginable than most folk would be willing to admit. Today's stage managed little encounter is not an isolated example. Salmond has assiduously cultivated opportunities to project an image of a statesmanlike First Minister, and of a Scottish government generally,  "comfortable on the world stage".  Recall his early publicity coup in 2009, with a (no doubt brief) meeting with the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. 

At the time, the more grinchly Scottish political contingent, predictably, pooh-poohed this for a publicity stunt.  The First Minister's critics saw in this sort of escapade evidence primarily of Salmond's bombast and pomposity, ignoring the boundaries of his office, brashly shoving himself to the fore and generally intervening where his interventions aren't called for.

These criticisms arguably miss the broader significance of these little vignettes, and the images which circulate from them. Salmond is, by soft degrees, subduing Scots to the idea that our politicians might sit unembarrassedly in international councils and negotiations, might not make a pig's ear of it, or otherwise show us all up by being bungling lackwits.  He has the Scottish cringe in his sights. It is a modest, but critical, contribution to encouraging - and concretising on screen - the idea of Scottish statehood is not only conceivable, but practical and achievable.  That it is literally imaginable.  Surveying just a few taken in Edinburgh today shows how far you can gain this sort of international frisson even within domestic UK politics.  What is surprising, however, and what might leave many Tories disgruntled, is just how far Cameron has been willing to go along with maestro Salmond's performance.


Cameron emerges from a spanking black car. The pair enjoy a formal, photographed meeting on the steps in front of the forbidding St Andrew's House. Consensus between the Westminster and Holyrood governments is not simply reached, unpretentiously confirmed by an email or a phone call, and announced in a speech or bulletin, but instead the Scottish government stage a dramatic encounter between the two leaders, a "signing ceremony" as the BBC's Daily Politics today had it. There is a surfeit of handshakes, and plenty of photos taken.  The echo of a treaty - reached, lest we forget, by co-equal nation states - is surely intentional and striking. 

The parallel is reinforced by several touches. Everything was calculated to emphasise the equality of the participants. Not a Prime Minister meeting a subordinate and parochial leader, but the visit paid by one a head of government to another, meeting and negotiating on more or less equal terms.  The ritual simultaneous co-signature, as both men put their names to an agreed text (the only aspect of the drama which arguably lacked elegance. The impersonal font, and A4 printed page, is hardly a new Declaration of Arbroath in vellum and sealing-wax). Even christening it the Edinburgh Agreement, its capitalisation a canny and conscious rhetorical move, suggests the sort of symbolism the nationalists are striving to promote.

And by gum, they succeeded. Cameron has proved an amazingly pliant co-participant.  You can't imagine Gordon Brown being so readily willing to hop to Salmond's jig in this way, partly, presumably, because our erstwhile Prime Minister felt more confident with his own Scottish credentials, and accordingly, couldn't be dragooned into this dance in the same way as Cameron was today.  Alan Trench has a nice phrase in a splendidly good post today on the detail and history of the section 30 negotiations.  The SNP, he says...

"... has won a symbolic game, by ensuring that Salmond only met Cameron, and leaving more junior ministers in each government to deal with the details."

The unsubtle point of all of this, is that events like today do more than simply mark agreement and resolve political controversy between the two governments in a functional, practical way.  They represent are an opportunity to project an image of what Scottish diplomacy might look and feel like after independence, with the English Prime Minister received in a neighbourly and constructive way.  As Alex Massie observes:

Exit Cameron, wet. 


  1. That's exactly how it looked to me. Cameron, a neighbouring leader, and friend, signing a treaty with our first minister.


  2. The protocol was interesting... reminded me of Borgen Episode 3, the Danish PM meets the Greenlandic PM - ostensibly as equals : 'Welcome to Denmark' is the Danish PMs opening gambit, despite Greenland being nowhere near political independence. However, respect and equality are expected in the tetchy relationship.

  3. How we will look back at the events of the 15th October 2012 will depend on the result of the referendum. If the unionist side loses and Scotland becomes independent, then Cameron’s reputation will sink still further and recriminations will be made about how he wasn’t tough enough, with the Nats, gave into this, gave into that etc. If on the other hand, after being given nearly all of what he wanted, Salmond loses the referendum, he could not very well claim later that he was robbed, the result was unfair etc. Under these circumstances the SNP would have to accept the will of the Scottish people and give up for the foreseeable future any hope of independence. That would be a far better result for uninionists than if the SNP had received less of what it wanted in the negotiations. Under these circumstances 15th October 2012 will scarcely be remembered.

  4. I have been sitting quietly in my cage ruminating away at just what has been agreed, in private, and why?

    The permutations are endless and ripe for the construction of endless conspiracy theories.

    Anyway, here is my take on it.

    Cameron has been advised by the opinion polls that the Scots don't really want independence and had Salmond been able somehow to jig a second DevoMax question the Union game would be up, today or tomorrow. I am not saying this is what Salmond wanted and he was able to accommodate Cameron's all or nowt line in the sand.

    If there is a no vote then Cameron emerges as the PM who saved the Union. If it is a Yes he will have already had some sort of off-the-books agreement which will allow him to keep the appearance of a World economic and military power so he can sit at he High Tables with the big boys.

    Either way he will push ahead with the parliamentary boundary changes which could engineer him 10 or 20 more seats at Westminster. If Yes he will at a stroke lose 40+ Labour MPs and be a cert for a Tory hegemony at Westminster.

    Miliband knows this is very much a real possibility and has already moved into the right wind ground where he will need to be post independence.

    Red Pill or Blue Pill for Westminster from then on with the same money backing the two as the LibDems will have by then shrunk to an even more useless rump. Thank you Secret Agent Clegg or as we will have to call you, E U Commissioner Clegg

    Tweedledum and Tweedledee variants of the US style political culture.

    The Marketing boys will see to it that the perception of differences are nuanced and diffused. Both Miliband and Cameron would like that.

  5. Groundskeeper Willie16 October 2012 at 13:59


    'If on the other hand, after being given nearly all of what he wanted, Salmond loses the referendum, he could not very well claim later that he was robbed, the result was unfair etc. Under these circumstances the SNP would have to accept the will of the Scottish people and give up for the foreseeable future any hope of independence.'


    Cameron has painted Salmond into a corner, and Salmond knows it.

  6. Lupus -

    'If Yes he will at a stroke lose 40+ Labour MPs and be a cert for a Tory hegemony at Westminster.'

    The current wedge of 40 or so Scottish Labour seats is indeed significant for Westminster but not necessarily decisive. England and Wales voted for Labour three times in a row -

    1997 General election, Labour majority 179. Number of Scottish Labour MPs: 56
    2001 General Election, Labour majority, 167. Number of Scottish Labour MPs: 56
    2005 General Election, Labour majority, 66. Number of Scottish Labour MPs: 41.

    And will doubtless do so again. One wee oddity of the Scottish politics scene that people keep forgetting is that though the Tories only got one MP at the last election, they got 412,855 of the votes - the SNP got 6 seats with 491,386 votes. With boundary changes, it is possible that the Tories may lose their Westminster MP, yet still get over 400,000 votes.

  7. Edwin Moore

    I was aware of the three instances pf the lack of need of Scottish labour seats for there to be Labour majority at Westminster. FPTP can work for some and not others depending on several factors.

    The lack of 40+ Labour MPs makes it much more likelier for there to be a Tory majority, especially when you factor in the point of boundary changes which I have read will even the votes per MP out for the Tories.

    The three instances, viz 1997, 2001 and 2005v were all under Tony Blair. If I remember well the Tory Party managed to work their way through three or four leaders, Major, Hague, Duncan-Smith (is that 2?) and Howard. Pretty insipid or unattractive bunch?

    The whole point is that the SE of England defines who controls Westminster. Blair sussed that and constructed New Labour to that end. Miliband now is doing the same and unless the Tories implode it will take a longer period for him to reposition Labour; certainly beyond the 2016 Westminster GE.

    Westminster is heading for a red pill, blue pill, same same but different political culture. Scotland I feel is traveling in a different direction and has been so for some time.

  8. Groundskeeper Willie16 October 2012 at 16:43

    So there would be a Tory majority in perpetuity in England?

    (There wouldn't but see where the argument leads.)

    How would that pan out for Scotland?

    What would the rate of corporation tax be?

    How would Scotland attract inward investment when faced with a much larger neighbour that had a government committed to free market principles? A government that didn't fear challenge.

    And all those 'we didn't mind the economic side so much' tories creeping out of the woodwork in the north east and Perth & Kinross and the other former Tory strongholds (they haven't gone away you know).

    Not for me thanks.

  9. I have no idea what a Tory dominated hegemony of Rump Former UK would be like and nor do you,beyond speculation, Mr Harris.

    What tactics a future Scottish Government would take, far less who whoever would form that administration is equally unclear. I have no idea and nor do you, unless you believe that the SNP will be in situ for the foreseeable future and you have bugged their Cabinet meetings. I don't have any such inside track.

    I guess we will just have to wait and see?

    If it goes the way I have suggested in the Red / Blue Pill scenario, the only thing I am sure about is that you will be out of a job, unless you get the ermine?

  10. "No more than Scottish people are ignorant of Cornwall or the Gower Peninsula, or County Down or East Anglia and their political situation(s). I wouldn't condemn them for that."

    Granted, Braveheart, but Scots are not governing on their behalf, or attempting to opine on their right to self-determine, or insunuating that a third or more of their people are moronically influenced to vote by no more than a Holywood film.

    Scots being ignorant of the politics of the Gower peninsula does no harm to the people of that area.

    Plus, I would have no real issue with a London media which was ignorant of politics in the Western Isles, but we are talking about a whole nation here, not the Gower Peninsula.

  11. This comment has been removed by the author.

  12. Sorry for deleting the comment. I hate typos.

    Groundskeeper Willie, having total disrespect for and underestimating your opponent is a good way to lose elections -- and referendums.

    While it is always possible that Alex Salmond miscalculated, trying to say that he is stupid is highly inaccurate. I would say, Mr. Salmond strongly encouraged Cameron to paint him into that corner, the corner he wanted to be in.

    If Unionists really want to lose the referendum, continuing to revile Scottish nationalists should be a good way to do so.