Those of you who have spent any length of time discussing my passion for ‘the beautiful game’ will know one of my proposed innovations has been that, in any knock-out game that might be settled by a penalty shoot out, the shoot out should be held before the start of the game – rather than at the end of 120 minutes. I am told crowds love penalty shoot outs (although personally I am agnostic) – so this way they would be guaranteed to see one. It avoids the unfair opprobrium that is sometimes heaped on the player that misses the penalty. But, most of all, I have always thought it would make for a much better game, and particularly the extra-time (which too often degenerates into an exhausted stalemate as both teams settle for penalties).
Listening to Cameron’s ‘victory” statement following the Scotland referendum result on Friday (September 19 2014) powerfully demonstrates the power of this idea – albeit in a very different context. Cameron’s ungracious celebration of Scotland’s vote was a post-hoc justification of his ‘decision’ to hold the referendum. He announced a number of blatantly partisan measures designed to assuage ‘little Englander’ anger at the devolution offers he had made to Scotland in the final weeks of the campaign. I have absolutely no doubt that had Cameron made such a speech before the vote, the Scotland ‘Yes’ campaign would now be celebrating, by a massive margin, a famous and unlikely victory.
So what should an ‘honest, humble Cameron’ have actually said on Friday? And, what are the lessons we can take and build on from the Scotland ‘independence’ referendum?
Much of my criticism of the government Cameron leads – both in professional and personal writing – has been that they make up policy on the back of an envelope as they go along; and that they are incapable of implementing it competently. The Scotland referendum, and now its aftermath, makes the point convincingly.
In a moment of disconsolate pessimism on Wednesday (17th September), as I contemplated Scotland voting ‘yes’, I spent several hours reading the Edinburgh Agreement and associated government (UK and Scotland) documents that had brought us to this point (of crisis).
It is quite clear both the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ campaigners had either not read the agreement, or deliberately misrepresented it (and its accompanying protocols) to the electorate. Firstly, it is not a legal agreement (see this 2012 critique). Second, it was only ever intended to provide an indication of Scottish opinion at a point in time. In short, the referendum was not an independence decision at all. It was merely giving the SNP (as the Scottish government) an option to open negotiations about independence (or anything else for that matter). Third the result was not binding in any way on either party. It only required both governments “to continue to work together constructively in the light of the outcome (of the referendum), whatever it is, in the best interests of the people of Scotland and of the rest of the United Kingdom.” Most damningly, no provisions were made for how the governments would ‘work together’; and how they would reconcile inevitable differences about what they considered the ‘best interests…. of Scotland and of the rest of the UK’ to be.
An honest, humble Cameron would have accepted he had led the UK to the point of disintegration on the back of a policy he had not thought through, and had no means of delivering. Regardless that he has ‘got away with it’, if he had even a ‘little finger’ of integrity, he would have then resigned.
Instead, he compounds the error. He proclaims the policy ‘right’ all along. He proposes devolution for England, Wales and Northern Ireland – again totally un-thought through, to be worked up by a partisan Cabinet Committee chaired by William Hague! Concurrently, he effectively puts enhanced Scotland devolution on the back burner by tying it to broader constitutional reforms across the UK.
Indeed, the reason Salmond is nowhere near as honourable as his resignation and reactive political commentary suggests is that he colluded and encouraged this deceit. He never made it clear to the electorate the meaning of the referendum vote. He never articulated his government’s proposals for independence were just the opening gambit of a potential negotiation that he knew, with absolute certainty, would be undeliverable in either the terms or the timetable of his wish list. His clear irritation with the PM in his resignation statement rather confirms his and Cameron’s political game, and recognises that Cameron is now continuing to press home his fortuitous victory.
The challenge for progressive communities, both North and South of the border, is to prevent the Westminster and Whitehall elites from getting away with it.
My second major learning point from the Referendum is that, notwithstanding his machinations, there is a fair chance this series of fiascos may presage Cameron’s fall. Realisation will quickly dawn that Cameron’s victory celebrations are not deliverable either.
Like the ‘penalty shoot-out’ proposals, one of my more ‘left-field’ readings of history is that it was Sir Anthony Meyer and the IRA who actually set the scene for the Tory’s successful anti-Thatcher coup of November 1990.
I shall leave the IRA for another time; but Sir Anthony Meyer (for those of you who have forgotten him) was a little known, pro-Europe Tory MP who became the ‘stalking horse’ candidate challenging Thatcher for the party leadership in November 1989. Of course he was soundly beaten, but self-deprecatingly reflected ‘I was surprised to get so many votes; I thought I’d be beaten by the abstentions.’ The significance of the challenge was that 60/374 Conservative MPs preferred to vote for ‘nothing’ rather than for Thatcher. Once ‘nothing’ was considered a reasonable preference, it became only a matter of time before her party threw her out – and so it did, a year later.
Consider the Scotland referendum in the same terms. What was really on offer was an undeliverable independence – no currency, no EU membership, a vindictive sore-losing Westminster prolonging a bitter divorce, an unwelcoming EU and US (only Putin seems to have been positive internationally), and probably a secessionist Crimea-esque Shetland/Orkney taking any oil dividend with them.
More than 1.6 million people were prepared to vote for this – an international mediocrity and/or obscurity, somewhere on a continuum between, say, a Slovenia at best and barely more recognised than Kosovo at worst. They preferred Sir Anthony Meyer to Cameron and Clegg. We all know – in our hearts – that, given the option, tens of millions of the UK population would vote the same way!
The challenge for progressive Britain is to offer these tens of millions more than Sir Anthony; and a viable alternative to the Tory-UKIP narrative which the PM implied in the almost unintelligible, illiterate pronouncements of his post-referendum statement.
The worry is that Miliband – although he probably means well – was largely irrelevant in the referendum – especially compared to the ‘big guns’ of his party. He, too, might wish to consider his position following his complicity in the referendum trickery, though at least he wasn’t a signatory to the Edinburgh agreement.
The Scotland referendum should ‘do for Cameron’, either from Tory patricide, or from the UK electorate next May. As we enter the party conference season, will we see the beginnings of a prospectus and an approach that can offer a positive vision for the progressive political energies unleashed by the Scotland referendum in parts of both the ‘yes’ and the ‘no’ campaigns? And, if not, from where will leadership of a ‘better UK’ come?