Save the union
aving the union’ is unlikely to rank highly on David Cameron’s list of new year resolutions. Scotland is becoming a land about which most Westminster politicians know little and care less. It is being handled in 10 Downing St by Ed Llewellyn, who specialises in foreign affairs, yet neither he nor anyone else has the faintest idea what to do about Alex Salmond.The Scots around Cameron regard their motherland as a distant memory, a place where they lived before seeking political asylum in England. The Edinburgh parliament, its arguments and dynamics, are a mystery to the Prime Minister and his aides. And yet somehow he needs to fight and win a referendum on independence.
The longer he ignores this problem, the worse it will become. The 1997 wipeout, when the Tories lost every seat, now looks like a golden era of popularity — no leader has since managed to attract half a million Tory voters, as Sir John Major did. The lack of Scottish MPs has compounded the Conservatives’ sense of isolation. Personal links have atrophied, and Salmond’s message to the Tories — that Scotland is a foreign and hostile land — is being believed. The Conservative leadership knows that attention on Yorkshire or the Midlands is far more likely to be repaid in votes.
Ed Miliband demonstrated his interest in Scotland last October when he was unable to name the ‘three great hitters’ who were campaigning to become leader of the Scottish Labour Party (a position he held at the time). The winner of this lack-of-talent contest, Johann Lamont, embodies the Holyrood parties’ failure to attract bright young things. The best idea that emerged from the Scottish Conservatives’ contest was to rename the party — but even this was defeated. It’s not as if the Liberal Democrats can crow: the party is polling so badly that it now stands to lose all ten of its seats in mainland Scotland, with Orkney & Shetland the last safe seat.
Unionists on both sides of the border have told themselves that separation is such an obviously bad idea — offering so much upheaval, for so little benefit — that Scots would never vote for it. Most opinion polls back this up, but Cameron should derive no comfort from this. Opinion polls put the Scottish National Party 14 points behind Labour at the start of last year’s Holyrood election campaign, and still Salmond went on to win an outright majority. All three main rivals resigned.
But he is beatable. The battle for Scotland simply requires a little organisation, and the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom ought to provide it. As Cameron knows, he cannot lead the charge — the campaign for Scotland’s future can hardly be fronted by an Englishman. But crucially, it ought to involve the Labour party, which still has a critical mass of intelligent Scottish MPs. If asked, they would advise Cameron to call a referendum at a time of his choosing and on a question of his choosing. Scots should be asked to say ‘yes’ to the union, and the campaign turned into a celebration of unity. There should be no third-option compromise, which could (if left to Salmond) be crafted into a consolation prize for the separatists.
Salmond is said to be planning a referendum on the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, June 2014. Robert the Bruce won that battle by choosing both the turf and the timing. Cameron should not allow Salmond this advantage. Avoiding battle is, alas, not an option: the only questions are when the fight will take place and on what terms. Salmond should not be left to decide.
The sight of daffodils blooming in January — as they are now — should be cheering. Not just because it’s pleasant to spend New Year’s Eve sitting outside admiring the unseasonable flowers. Freezing weather is the biggest killer of pensioners in Britain, and the mild temperatures mean that fewer will die of the cold this winter.
Each year at least 20,000 people — mostly the over-75s — still succumb to what is technically known as ‘excess winter mortality’. Extortionate fuel prices, inflated by the government’s hidden carbon taxes, had threatened to deal an even greater blow to old people this winter. Nature has relented; but the British government has not. Chris Huhne’s new environmental targets will mean that bills will increase by at least a third over the next decade.
The Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act (2000) has done nothing to reduce the death toll, and still ministers seem more the spectator | 7 January 2012 | www.spectator.co.uk concerned with the heat than the cold. When a heatwave was blamed for claiming 2,000 lives in Britain eight years ago, the response was to divert millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money into trying to slow global warming.
If just a tenth of winter deaths are caused by overpriced fuel, that makes it a bigger killer than traffic accidents. Finding ways to make energy bills cheaper is the surest way to save British lives. It is a mission which Mr Huhne ought to approach with some urgency.