So what just happened? Watching the body language, maneuvering and positioning is fascinating. Salmond welcomes Cameron, and hand on back ushers him into a room before sitting in front of a huge yellow map. The table was tiny, the whole set-up to be as uncomfortable as possible. Moore seems inconsequential, a mere bag-carrier.
Previously through the day Cameron had gone through a choreographed “I’m visiting Scotland” routine. Dave eats porridge, poses with his MP and his new Scottish leader (allegedly) in front of the Forth Rail Bridge (Scottish icon), then declares that ‘the Union’s not about the past’ before citing John Knox, Adam Smith, James Maxton, RLS, James Watt and so on (and on). Having established that a) he was in Scotland b) he liked porridge and c) he had a great grasp of Scottish history and knew where Aberdeen was, he then made some very odd statements, including: ‘There are now more Scots living in England and English people living in Scotland than ever before. And almost half of Scots now have English relatives.’
What does that actually mean? It seems predicated on some weird notion of ethnicity. The London press pack remain confused by how today went and what the hell’s going on.
Gary Gibbon for C4 News suggests: “David Cameron’s on his way home and his aides are describing his 40 minute meeting with Alex Salmond as “frustrating” and producing “no progress.” I think there’s a bit of play-acting going on. There will be no real challenge to the 2014 timetable. There may be controversy over votes for 16 and 17 year-olds but the real haggling question is over Devo Max. This is a good back-stop for both sides, and for that reason it may end up being on the ticket. But Salmond can only risk so much without looking desperate, and Moore and Cameron have to stick to the party line that they just want one simple question.
Responses and analysis of today’s Jack in the Box constitutional politics are mixed. Alex Massie wrote in gushing approval: “This was One Nation Dave in excelsis.” But over at the New Statesman Jamie Maxwell fairly guts Cameron’s performance: first pointing out that Cameron didn’t even seem to know that Scotland already has tax-raising powers, and second that his emphasis on ‘fairer’ in Britain was downright bizarre:
“Cameron gave the distinct impression of someone who hadn’t seriously examined his opponent’s arguments. At times, in fact, he gave the impression of someone who hadn’t really examined his own. “Scotland”, he said, “is richer and fairer as part of the UK”. But the facts simply don’t back this up.”
Over the last 35 – 40 years, North Sea oil production has generated as much as £300bn in tax revenues for the UK Exchequer, yet Scottish rates of income inequality have skyrocketed while social mobility has stagnated. Only a Home Counties Conservative could describe that as “fair”.
Over at Channel 4 News, Gary Gibbon seemed to be getting a bit confused, writing: “It was interesting to hear David Cameron earlier issue a clarion cry to Gordon Brown, John Reid and Alistair Darling to rally to the union jack and do their bit for the campaign. It’s an acknowledgement of his own political weakness in Scotland. But it also tells you something about what a pro-union campaign might look like. There would be a cross-party campaign of some kind but the heavy lifting might well be done by Labour. The template is not so much the European referendum or AV referendum where cross-party campaigns dominated. This time Labour is united and significantly bigger than the rival parties in Scotland, so the Labour “No” campaign would probably dominate the pro-union side in events and messages.”
Well that’s a hugely flawed bit of analysis. It’s not at all clear how Labour will manage to share the stage with the Tories and Liberals and not suffer further erosion and collapse as we saw in Glasgow in the past week.
But the huge surprise of the day was the rabbit out the hat that Cameron tried to pull offering ‘new powers for the Scottish parliament’. It’s an old-school wrecking tactic. Part bribe, part half-baked half-botched constitutional jiggery-pokery. And the unionists have the bare-faced cheek to talk of ‘rigged ballots’ and dodgy questions? This is just making things up day-to-day without any due process at all. And what was poor Ruth Davidson to make of it? Only weeks ago she ran an unremarkable campaign on the basis of ‘no more devolution’, now, she’s being publicly undermined by her boss. Did he even tell her? Salmond’s response was swift:
‘We’ve been here before in Scottish politics when famously Sir Alec Douglas Home in the 1979 referendum told the people of Scotland … to vote “no” for a better deal,’ Mr Salmond said. Then he added: ‘Scotland actually voted “yes” but what happened then was 17 -18 years of no deal at all from a Conservative Government at Westminster. Now, I don’t think there would be any appetite whatever for Scotland to be presented with a false prospectus again.’
It is an extraordinary intervention, and though his speech was well crafted (by Julian Glover) the end result is an impression of a sort of shambolic slightly desperate constitutional flailing about. This is not a strategy.