The underlying issue behind Prime Minister David Cameron’s refusal to debate the case for an independent Scotland with First Minister Alex Salmond is that it exposes an identity crisis at the heart of the No campaign.
Who is in charge of the case for No, and the content of its message?
Having had over a year to observe it in operation, albeit from the opposite side of the debate, it does seem clear that while Better Together may have a fully functioning office and plenty of dedicated and talented personnel in Glasgow, the No campaign is essentially embedded in the Westminster system.
Nearly a year ago, the Herald reported – in a story headlined “Cameron’s army of civil servants to defend Union” – that: “Whitehall’s full intellectual might is now engaged on what has been dubbed the Coalition’s ‘manifesto for the UK’.” (29 October 2012)
The report went on to say that: “The Treasury is spearheading the co-ordinated push with Sir Nicholas MacPherson, the department’s top civil servant, chairing a group of permanent secretaries”, and that 13 papers in different policy areas across government would be published – a process which is indeed underway.
While many in Scotland might observe that the “full intellectual might” of Whitehall is perhaps not what it once was – being the operation that has brought such absurdities to the referendum debate as mobile phone roaming charges and annexing Faslane after independence – it does nonetheless demonstrate that the case for No is being drafted and deployed in the many arteries of Westminster government extending from numbers 10 and 11 Downing Street.
The interesting thing is that – as well as being more than happy to brief the Scottish media that this is the situation (along the lines of the Herald story above) – David Cameron himself has never previously been shy about stressing his own leadership role.
As recently as June, the Prime Minister pledged to the Scottish Tory conference that he would fight “head, heart, body and soul” against Scottish independence.
And yet, despite all this, when it comes to the most elementary aspect of any election or referendum campaign in Scotland in the modern age – namely television debates – David Cameron now wants to remove his head, heard, body and soul from the process. Which apart from anything else does beg the question of what else he feels he has to contribute.
The identity crisis for the No campaign is that while the case against independence is clearly being manufactured in London, there is a refusal (ironic for a pro-Union campaign) to acknowledge the central role of Westminster in producing the core content of its message – even to the extent of trying to hide the Prime Minister away from fronting up the case for No.
It is an impossible contradiction, and there is really no way to reconcile these entirely different positions. And while the row about TV debates is an abstract one for the public in the overall referendum campaign, this contradiction does have real implications for the substantive debate between Yes and No.
Again, from my observation of the No campaign, I am struck by how little it has to say for itself in the absence of these UK Government papers, or the reports (of varying quality) from Westminster select committees, comprising MPs and Lords all of whom oppose independence.
As a campaign essentially preaching a dependency message to Scotland, it is perhaps in a sense appropriate that Better Together should itself be so dependent on Westminster and Whitehall. Logically, from a Unionist perspective, the No campaign should be shouting about the importance and value of this London-link, and therefore embracing David Cameron. But, politically, it spurns him – and for the very same reasons he is rejected by the vast majority of people in Scotland: we don’t agree with Tory ideology and policy, and we don’t vote for them.
The issue that is left hanging though is this. If the No campaign doesn’t think it is right for the Prime Minister of the UK even to be on the telly to debate the case for the UK, how much more wrong is it that someone so utterly unrepresentative of Scotland should be our Prime Minister in the first place?
And that does go to the heart of the real referendum debate – the right of the nation of Scotland to be run by a government of our choosing at each and every election.
In adopting an “except for viewers in Scotland” attitude to David Cameron in relation to TV debates, the No campaign has boosted the whole issue of who does and who should speak for Scotland – and therefore, unwittingly, the case for Yes.