Cameron’s gamble comes back to haunt him



Peter Oborne

More than two years have elapsed since British Prime Minister David Cameron gave the green light to the Scottish referendum. At the time, it did not seem that big a deal, either to the prime minister or to anyone else. It was generally assumed that only a minority of Scots would vote to end the Union. There is some evidence that Alex Salmond of the Scottish National Party (SNP) thought so. He wanted to put a third option — greater powers falling short of independence — before the voters.

However, Cameron thought that he could put Salmond on the spot with a simple ‘Yes’/’No’ referendum. This has proved a giant miscalculation. Last weekend, panic-stricken Westminster politicians offered the SNP leader his “devo-max” anyway. Yet, it still looks possible that Scottish voters will support full independence. Such an outcome will create Britain’s greatest constitutional crisis in more than 300 years, dwarfing the famous clash between the House of Lords and the Asquith government 100 years ago, or the Great Reform Act of 1832.

Let us consider the immediate consequences. There will be agitation to extend the term of the current parliament to March 24, 2016, the date at which Scotland will become fully independent. This manoeuvre has been floated in order to solve the problem of Scottish MPs returning to parliament after next year’s general election, only to find that their seats at Westminster will cease to exist the following year. But the general election is unlikely to be delayed — British democracy does not allow governments to extend beyond their natural terms, except during wartime.

Another possibility is more plausible: An early general election. Cameron is adamant that he will stay on as Prime Minister even if the worst happens next Thursday — an erroneous opinion, which has been endorsed by Ed Miliband. Cameron may well be wise to say what he does, because he does not want to place his personal fate at the heart of the Scottish plebiscite.

However, 30 years ago, Lord Carrington resigned as foreign secretary after the Falkland Islands were captured by Argentina. Lord Carrington quit his office, even though he was not the slightest bit responsible; and the islands were recaptured a few weeks later. If everything goes wrong this week, Cameron will have mislaid Scotland, not a group of largely uninhabited islands in the South Atlantic.

I am certain the prime minister, an honourable man, will resign at once. If he does not do so, very little time will elapse before he will face a motion of no confidence on the floor of the House. The Conservative Party may then be plunged into a leadership contest. To avoid this kind of chaos, some Tory MPs are now talking of a caretaker — almost certainly William Hague — taking over as Tory leader (and prime minister) for the last few months before next year’s election. Ed Miliband may also find survival difficult, because the Labour Party must surely bear the bulk of the blame for the loss of Scotland, where the party has traditionally been so strong. And amid all the chaos and recrimination, politicians will be obliged to make a series of administrative decisions of exceptional complexity and sensitivity.

National partitions — think of Ireland in 1922, India in 1947, Southern Sudan more recently or the birth-pangs of a Kurdish state now — are always bitter affairs. This is because two sides are arguing over the spoils. Who owns what? To whom do the armed forces give allegiance? Who inherits the debt? Who keeps the currency? There is already evidence of sectarian hatred, both north and south (where there are signs of a malevolent new English identity) of the border. All of these issues will have to be dealt with by a set of politicians reeling with shock at the collapse of many of the landmarks that have given meaning to their lives. The BBC will have to find another set of initials. Former premier John Major noted recently, during a particularly depressing appearance on the Today programme, that Britain’s seat on the UN Security Council will go and hinted that Wales could be next to secede. Courtesy The Telegraph

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