It is not often I am so unsympathetic to a politician when they make a mistake that I think they should resign, but in the case of David Cameron’s handling of the Scottish independence referendum, I believe I am justified.
Alex Salmond asked David Cameron for a third option of devo-max in the run-up to the Edinburgh Agreement in 2012. Polls indicated a majority of Scots in favour of this option, but Mr Cameron refused. This has been widely reported by the media and there has been no denial by Mr Cameron, nor any explanation by him.
2 years down the line, and after a bitter campaign, Scots are sharply divided and the outcome of the referendum will be very close, according to the polls. Unless something dramatic happens in the next month, there will be no national consensus either for continued union or for independence i.e. the two options on the ballot paper.
The entire range of opinion on the referendum question is fortunately democratic. At either end of the spectrum we have ideological nationalists and unionists. In the middle is the broader mass of Scots who are more or less discontented with the union (translated into an SNP majority in Holyrood). However, until the referendum campaign got going, they were not strongly committed either to union or independence.
For most modern Scots, voting “No” does not imply the kind of ideological support for the union that existed among most post-war Scots. For the current Scottish middle ground, the question that the referendum poses is more like : should we give the UK another chance? The difference between “Yes” or “No” to this question is more subtle. Both camps would probably agree that the Westminster has had plenty of chances to work with the grain of the Scottish people and that it has failed on many counts. The only difference between them is that the referendum has forced them to decide whether or not the UK has blown it or not. I imagine that some Scots have moved into the indy camp partly because the UK government “blew” it by forcing the issue in this way.
On the positive side, this decision has had the amazingly positive effect of stimulating political interest among ordinary Scots, like never before. Even some English people have started to think about politics a bit more!
Nevertheless, the current situation is that we have no consensus in Scotland in favour of union or independence: this is a problem made in Downing Street. There was no good reason to deny a third option of devo-max. I don’t know what the Lib Dem coalition partners were doing in 2012. Devo-max is their preferred policy option, and they have a longer track record of supporting this than the Conservatives. Michael Moore, the Scottish Secretary, is a Lib Dem and was Mr Cameron’s deputy in the Edinburgh Agreement negotiations. I have seen no comment from Nick Clegg or Mr Moore on their roles.
If there is a “Yes” vote, the stated policy of all 3 main Westminster parties to keep the union together will have failed. From this perspective, Mr Cameron’s decision not to allow a devo-max option will have been a colossal error of judgment. The consequences of Scottish independence for the politics and the economy of the UK will be immense, in terms of additional government workload alone.
If there is a “No” vote, Mr Cameron’s insistence on a single-question referendum will have divided Scotland, politically and for some, also personally. A large minority of Scots will be very disgruntled at having lost the opportunity for independence, perhaps for a generation, with no corresponding opportunity to vote for devo-max. If the Westminster parties do deliver on their promises to enact devo-max legislation, the new system will lack the popular mandate that the referendum could have given it. Again, Mr Cameron’s veto of a third option on the ballot paper will have created these problems quite unnecessarily.
Ministerial responsibility is now a weak concept but I believe still an honourable one. Mr Cameron can say that he never expected the vote to be so close. But this fact remains and one can trace the problems that a close vote will cause to Mr Cameron’s calculated decision not to allow a third option on the ballot paper. Morally, there is no alternative to resignation for Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg, in my opinion.
Winston Churchill resigned following his disastrous involvement as a government minister in the First World War. He then went into the political wilderness and trained as a soldier, so that he would understand first-hand what fighting for his country meant. This was an honourable path to take. When he returned to politics, he was wiser and stronger. He went on to become one of the greatest statesmen in British political history.
Mr Cameron’s place in the history books will be blighted by his misjudgement on devo-max. If he resigns on 19 September, he is still young enough to make amends and return from the political wilderness later on in his career as a wiser and humbler man. His “wilderness experience” could take many forms. One idea could be to undertake community work in various places across the UK (including Scotland, if they vote “No”). In that way, he will be practically improving the lives of the people of the UK and learning what it is to live like them. Nick Clegg should join him too.