With his Eton education and clipped vowels, David Cameron is often seen as quintessentially English. But lately the British prime minister has been talking up his Scottish heritage – with particular emphasis on Clan Cameron’s motto, “Let us unite.”
As September’s referendum on Scottish independence from the United Kingdom draws closer, Mr. Cameron is becoming increasingly concerned about a burgeoning shift among Scots towards the pro-independence side, which prompted a rare visit to Scotland today to press the unionist case in person.
But observers warn that the Conservative prime minister may be in a no-win situation north of the border, where he crystallizes Scotland’s nationalist and anti-Tory sentiments while not yet offering a constructive alternative to undecided Scottish voters.
“These token trips mean virtually nothing,” says Karly Kehoe, a senior lecturer in history at Glasgow Caledonian University. “What the politicians at Westminster need to demonstrate to the Scottish public is that they understand the level of debate taking place here and that they are engaged with the issues.”
A Tory in a Scottish land
Cameron told reporters in Glasgow today that he would be making an “unrelentingly positive” case for the union over the coming months. Speaking at the start of a two-day visit, the Conservative party leader said: “My message is simple. We want Scotland to stay. We are all enriched by being together. Scotland puts the great into Great Britain.”
But his appearance in Scotland’s largest city was a low-key affair – hardly surprisingly given his party’s travails in Scotland. The Tories, the largest party in England, holds just one of 59 Scottish seats in the UK parliament at Westminster. Many Scots still blame Margaret Thatcher for the deindustrialization that ravaged many Scottish cities. When the former Conservative leader died last year, hundreds attended a celebratory street party in Glasgow’s main square.
The Scottish National Party (SNP), which controls the devolved parliament in Edinburgh, has described independence as an opportunity to end Tory rule in Scotland forever. SNP deputy leader Nicola Sturgeon dismissed Cameron’s visit, saying “We will be better off if all decisions on our future are made here in Scotland rather than by an out-of-touch Tory elite at Westminster.”
Although polling has consistently put the unionists ahead so far, there has been disquiet about Better Together, the cross-party “No” campaign supported by Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Opponents of independence have been accused of relying on a lugubrious message and of failing to make a compelling case for maintaining the union.
Recent reports that Westminster suppressed the findings of a government-funded opinion poll thatindicated a rise in nationalist sentiment have fed this narrative.
Bane or boon for the “no” vote?
But with the Sept. 18 vote to end the Union of 1707 only months away, Cameron is caught in an awkward position when it comes to Scotland, says James Maxwell, a Scottish political commentator at the New Statesman.
“The SNP accuse Westminster of bullying whenever they have something to say. Then they accuse Westminster of being feart [afraid] when they say nothing. [The SNP] are quite good at playing that populist anti-Tory card.”
While Cameron’s visit could possibly be a boon for his independence-supporting opponents, the British leader had no choice but to risk an appearance, says Maxwell. “If [Cameron] just systematically avoids Scotland for four months it would be awfully embarrassing, not just for him and for the conservative party but for the no campaign more broadly.”
Cameron has consistently rejected calls from Yes Scotland to participate in a live TV debate with SNP leader Alex Salmond. Some, like Arthur Midwinter, visiting professor of politics at the University of Edinburgh, believe that Cameron should go further and keep out of the independence campaign completely.
“My view is that Cameron should leave it to the Scottish secretary [Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael] to argue on behalf of the UK government and for [Labour MP and Better Together leader] Alistair Darling to speak for Better Together,” says Professor Midwinter. “Cameron should stay away from the campaign. I don’t think it’s helpful to have him coming here and presenting arguments. This is really a matter for Scots.”
But the prime minister’s visit could end up benefiting both sides in the independence debate, says Alex Massie, an experienced watcher of Scottish politics and a commentator for the Spectator.
“We are accustomed to viewing politics as a zero-sum game in which there is an identifiable winner and an equally identifiable loser. But the prime minister of the United Kingdom coming to Scotland to talk about the strengths and the advantages of the union is an exception to that general rule of political punditry,” Mr. Massie says. “I think it’s actually a win-win for both sides. Both sides will get out of it what they want.”
Nonetheless, he doesn’t expect Cameron’s visit to move the needle much overall. “The notion that this will have a major impact on the referendum is, I suspect, exaggerated.”
This piece originally appeared in the Christian Science Monitor.