Why David Cameron is finding it difficult convincing Scotland to stay in the UK

EDINBURGH, Scotland — When David Cameron was here last week to call on Scots to reject independence from the United Kingdom, he did it by promising more powers for the devolved Scottish parliament.

Scots could have the “best of both worlds,” the prime minister argued. Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom would be “stronger, safer, more secure and more successful” inside the union if they vote “no” in a referendum planned for September, he said.

But that’s a message he’s struggled to get across.

With polls suggesting support for leaving the UK is slowly growing — even though the opponents of independence still maintain a clear lead — many are asking why the prime minister appears to be doing the minimum to save a three-century-old union.Cameron

Some of his obstacles are obvious.

The Conservative Party leader, who was privately educated and has a background in public relations, is often caricatured here as aloof and remote from Scottish concerns.

The Conservatives hold just one of Scotland’s seats in the British parliament in London and are deemed irrelevant in the devolved parliament here, which is dominated by the pro-independence Scottish National Party.

The internal party politics are less visible.

Cameron’s allies among Scottish Conservatives — whose official title is the Conservative and Unionist Party — have traditionally resisted the kind of devolution the prime minister is offering Scotland. The party called for a “no” vote in the 1997 referendum that led to the establishment of a Scottish parliament.

Pro-union parties have also been unable to agree on the shape further powers for Scotland would take in the event of a “no” victory on Sept. 18.

Independence supporters, for their part, point to history to argue the case that the prime minister can’t be trusted to keep his word: When Scots voted in an unsuccessful referendum on devolution in 1979, then-Conservative leader Margaret Thatcher promised to deliver an improved home-rule settlement if they voted “no.”

In the end, Scotland had to wait almost two decades for its devolved parliament.

“If a bearded transvestite can win Eurovision, I suppose anything is possible,” commentator Iain Macwhirter wrote in last weekend’s Sunday Herald about this month’s popular Europe-wide song contest. “But believing in more powers is a bit like believing Scotland could win the World Cup: it’s theoretically possible, but vanishingly remote and ruled out for the time being.”

The Scottish National Party (SNP) says only a vote for independence would guarantee more powers for Scotland.

“Nobody will believe Tory promises of more powers for Scotland because the last time that happened the only thing Scotland got was Thatcherism and 18 years of Tory governments we didn’t vote for,” Scotland’s first minister Alex Salmond said last week in response to Cameron’s pledge.

The prime minister has also been put in a difficult position by the way the referendum campaign is shaping up.

While he’s refused to become seriously involved — maintaining the decision is for the Scottish people to make — and has rejected repeated offers to participate in a televised debate with Salmond, a “yes” vote would seriously damage his credibility.

Cameron is “caught in an awkward position,” says James Maxwell, a political commentator for the New Statesman. “The government don’t quite know how involved to get.”

The SNP has been good at playing the populist anti-Tory card, Maxwell adds. “They accuse Westminster of bullying whenever they have something to say,” he says of the UK parliament in London. “Then they accuse Westminster of being feart [afraid] when they say nothing.”

Although Cameron has a “clearer ear” for the Scottish debate than many of his Conservative colleagues, Maxwell says, “he is a right-wing patrician Tory with little or no electoral legitimacy in Scotland, so he is never going to play particularly well with the electorate here.”

Not everyone’s a critic, however.

Some have welcomed Cameron’s cautious approach to the referendum, including Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a former Scottish Conservative MP who’s called it “extremely wise.”

“Alex Salmond wants to turn this into a Scotland versus England issue, and particularly an SNP versus the Conservatives issue,” says Rifkind, a onetime Tory defense minister. “There’s no reason why the rest of us should play that game.”

Paradoxically, the independence vote may offer Scottish Conservatives their best chance in a generation to improve their dismal electoral fortunes at home.

A party commission is due to publish its proposals for further devolution in Scotland in the event of a “no” vote.

With previous proposals from the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties having received decidedly lukewarm receptions, the Scottish Tories have an opportunity to put some eye-catching suggestions on the table.

Measures thought to be under consideration include the full devolution of income tax.

“The Tories have a chance to stake out the radical ground,” Maxwell says.

Of course, any new powers for Edinburgh would depend on Scots heeding Cameron’s pleas and saying “no” in September.

This piece originally appeared in the Global Post. 

Catalans form human chain for independence

BARCELONA, Spain — People in Catalonia formed a 250-mile human chain across this Spanish region in the latest push to create an independent state.

At least 400,000 people took part in the event on part in Catalonia’s national day.

On Tuesday evening, a crowd walked slowly through the narrow streets around Sants, a neighborhood west of Barcelona, singing, “In, inde, independencia.” Many waved torches or carried the starry esteldada, the flag favored by supporters of Catalan independence.

“We don’t feel respected about our language and our way of life,” said Jemina Albesa, a housewife who was among the pro-independence marchers.

She says she didn’t always support Catalonia’s leaving Spain, but recently changed her mind. “In the past I thought it was possible to make a compromise with the rest of Spain,” she said, “but I think that’s impossible now.’

Such views are becoming increasingly common in Catalonia, a region of around seven and a half million in the country’s northeast. Last year, on September 11, an estimated 1.5 million people took to the streets of the regional capital, Barcelona, in a huge rally for independence.catalonia_human_chain_spain_4_09_11_13

Today’s demonstration started at 5:14 pm to reflect the year 1714, when Barcelona fell to Bourbon forces. All symbols of Catalan autonomy were destroyed after the defeat. The university was closed and all writing and teaching in the Catalan language forbidden.

Almost 300 hundred years later, Catalonia is one of the country’s most developed regions with a large amount of autonomy.

Still, around 80 percent of Catalans favor holding a referendum on independence. Carles Boix, professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton University, believes 60 to 65 percent would vote yes and another 35 percent would vote no or abstain.

“For 100 or more years, Catalans have tried to have autonomy within Spain, but these autonomy demands have never been fully satisfied and because of that people have become progressively tired and now they are in favor of doing something bigger,” he said.

The latest clamor for independence can be attributed to a number of factors: Spain’s on-going financial travails, growing anger at cash transfers from prosperous Catalonia to poorer regions, and widespread frustration with the central government’s reluctance to grant more powers to the Catalan parliament, which was re-established in 1980.

“Catalan people have realized over the last 15 years that Spain doesn’t really want to reform itself, doesn’t want to change itself,” says Roger Albinyana, secretary for foreign and EU affairs in the Catalan government. “Therefore their aspirations cannot be met within Spain.”

More from GlobalPost: Planet Pic: Catalonia’s human chain

Others argue that independence would be the wrong choice for a region with strong economic and social links to the rest of Spain.

“For many, independence has become a magic option that will solve all economic problems,” says Murici Lucena, speaker for the Catalan Socialist Party in the regional parliament. “I think it’s a huge fallacy.”

In the aftermath of last year’s successful September 11 demonstration in Barcelona, Catalan premier Arthur Mas called a snap election in a bid to copper-fasten support for independence. But while a majority of pro-succession parties were returned, Mas’s right-of-centre CiU party saw its representation fall. The nationalists have since struggled to govern a divided Catalan parliament.

A referendum without Madrid’s blessing is unlikely — for now, at least. But by taking to the streets today, Catalans will be hoping to keep the issue of Catalonia’s constitutional future firmly on the national, and international, political agenda.

This piece originally appeared on the Global Post.