Cameron’s campaign to save the Union sets off on the wrong foot

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By a Newsnet reporter

Speaking on the first day of the Scottish Conservative spring conference in Troon, Prime Minister David Cameron pledged that the Conservatives would “fight with everything we’ve got” to maintain the Union and prevent Scottish independence.

Mr Cameron said that the Conservatives needed to become more aggressive in their defence of the Union and the promotion of centre-right policies, saying:  “The time for timidity is over.  Enough of the hand-wringing and trying to be all things to all people.  Let’s be clear about what we stand for – and what we won’t put up with.”  

Speaking about the Scotland Bill, which will begin its final stages in the Westminster Parliament next week, the Prime Minister claimed that the Bill offered Scotland a huge transfer of powers, saying:

“In the Scotland Bill we’ve got a huge transfer of fiscal powers … new borrowing powers.  A cash reserve.  A Scottish income tax.  Indeed the proportion of the Budget that can be raised in Scotland will more than double.  And this week we’ve reached agreement with the Scottish Government on further issues they wanted reflected in the Bill.”  

The measures in the Bill have been dismissed by many as “Calman Lite”.  The powers detailed in the Bill fall short of the original proposals of the Calman Commission, set up jointly by Labour, the Lib Dems and the Conservatives during the previous Scottish Parliament.  The income tax varying powes included in the Bill has been decried by critics as unusable.

In his speech to the dwindling band of party faithful in Troon the Prime Minister added that he was “open-minded” about the transfer of powers above those offered in the Scotland Bill.  However Mr Cameron refrained from spelling out any details about which extra powers he had in mind and again asserted that this was a question which could only be addressed after Scotland had voted against independence in the planned referendum.  

Mr Cameron said:  “I am open-minded about the transfer of more powers … as long as those powers are truly about improving the lives of Scottish people – not just bargaining chips in a game of constitutional poker.  But all these are principally questions for after the referendum.”

The Prime Minister announced the launch of a new anti-independence campaign headed by the Conservatives.  Called “Conservative Friends of the Union” the campaign will attempt to persuade Scots that they are best off remaining within the UK and accepting Conservative policies.

Mr Cameron said:  “The Conservative Friends of the Union – launched today – is going to say just that … we walk taller, stand prouder, shout louder together.

“That’s why not only can you can love Scotland and love the United Kingdom … not only can you can drape yourself in the Saltire and the Union Jack … but you can be even prouder of your Scottish heritage than your British heritage – as many in Scotland are – and still believe that Scotland is better off in Britain.

“And all this is why this Prime Minister and this party is going to fight for the United Kingdom with everything we’ve got.”

Mr Cameron told the Conservatives they should reclaim Scottish patriotism, saying:

“For too long, we’ve let the SNP claim ownership of patriotism – the Saltire is the flag of a proud nation – not the symbol of one party.”

However Mr Cameron’s comments about Scottish patriotism may have been undermined by the fact that he made the remarks while standing in front of a large Union flag backdrop.

Commenting on David Cameron’s speech, SNP MSP Chic Brodie welcomed the prospect of the Conservatives leading the anti-independence campaign, given their deep unpopularity in Scotland.

Mr Brodie, MSP for South Scotland, said:

“The Prime Minister was happy to boast about his 50p tax cut, but he made absolutely no mention of his Government leaving 500,000 Scots pensioners hundreds of pounds worse off over the next few years thanks to his Granny Tax, or the 3p fuel duty hike which will hurt hard-pressed motorists and damage the economy.

“When it comes to Scotland’s future, all Mr Cameron has to offer is a vague promise of ‘something else’ if people vote No to independence – which will only succeed in encouraging more people to vote Yes, because the last time a Tory PM promised jam tomorrow in the run-up to a referendum it resulted in 18 years of Tory rule which Scotland didn’t vote for.

“Now Cameron is desperately trying to dictate the terms of this referendum as well, which has only resulted in a dramatic surge in membership for the SNP.  Ruth Davidson’s ‘line in the sand’ had barely been laid out before her London boss had thrown the sand back in her face and taken charge of the anti-independence campaign.

“Scotland is firmly on the road to independence.  And if this is the best that the Prime Minister has to offer in his fight to save the union, it begs the question: with friends like these, who needs enemies?”

However as soon as David Cameron’s “Conservative Friends of the Union” campaign began, it was mired in controversy.  

Speaking at the launch of the campaign in Troon, David Trimble, former leader of the Ulster Unionists who now sits in the House of Lords as a Conservative peer, said that every Scot had a “British component” to their national identity, and that an independent Scotland would “do violence to people’s own sense of identity”.

According to recent opinion polls, over one third of Scots entirely reject any identification as “British”, and a large majority of the remainder report feeling more Scottish than British.  Only 20% of Scots say that they regard themselves as more British than Scottish and a mere 4% say that they primarily see themselves as British.

However Mr Trimble disagreed, saying:

“I have to say to Scottish Nationalists that by fighting for a programme of separatism, saying that you want to take Scotland out and take the Scottish identity out into a separate place, you are doing violence to part of the identity of every Scotsman, because there is a British component in the identity of every Scotsman.  And to separate that is to do violence to people’s own sense of identity.”

Commenting on Lord Trimble’s remarks, Scottish National Party MSP for Glasgow Humza Yousaf said:

“This is exactly what David Cameron and Ruth Davidson didn’t want – their much promised positive case for the Union hasn’t even survived the Tory launch event, and now lies in tatters – it is precisely this sort of negative nonsense that is so damaging to the Tory-led anti-independence campaign.

“Lord Trimble couldn’t be more wrong about Scotland.  Independence is the broad, inclusive and positive option for Scotland, in which the wide range of identities we have in our modern nation – Scottish, British, Pakistani, Chinese, Polish, Irish and many, many more – can all be reflected and celebrated.”