To: Prime Minister David Cameron
Re: Saving Scotland
Mr Prime Minister, let me congratulate you on your famous victory, which almost none of us – including myself – saw coming. You have accomplished the almost impossible, securing an increase in parliamentary representation (of 24 seats) for an incumbent party after a full term in office. While other Prime Ministers have managed to improve on previous electoral performances, one has to go back into the mists of time – to Lord Salisbury in 1900 – to find an apt comparison.
I think an under-reported reason for your triumph is that this election played to your personal strengths. For good and ill, you have always reminded me of no one so much as Harold Macmillan: decent, posh, born to rule, and capable, if a little limited in terms of imagination; a man of his times, rather than of history. Both of you seem to be steady-as-she-goes types, not easily frightened off once a course of action has been decided upon, serenely confident that – in the end – the world will go your way. These are admirable qualities, ones that have just secured you a remarkable victory; sadly, they will not help you now.
For your second term amounts to a sea change for British politics, a new heroic age of existential questions that simply cannot be put off any longer. Both the future of the Union itself, as well as the final nature of the UK’s ties with next-door Europe, are heading to a historical climax. And steady-as-she-goes is simply not an option if you are to master history, rather than have history master you. You will have to think anew, and act well outside of your personal comfort zone, if you are to save the Union you hold dear.
Scotland is the first – and in many ways the decisive – question that must be dealt with. You will struggle to keep the Scottish and European questions separate, just as Nicola Sturgeon (having turned parliamentary Scotland into a one-party state) will try to jumble them up. She has already warned that the trigger for a second referendum on Scottish independence (a vote that at present you would lose) would be an EU referendum in which England votes to leave and far more europhile Scotland votes to stay.
The political lesson here is that to be responsibly slow and deliberate, to be pragmatically reactive, to await events (all things you are good at, and which normally are virtues) would be killing. For if nothing is done, and done relatively quickly, Scotland is simply lost. A YouGov poll of 26 April found that, by 48 to 31 per cent, those polled believe that Scotland will be independent in 20 years’ time. So it will be, if you do not decisively change the storyline.
As is so often the case, Thomas Jefferson points the way. For the unique, counter-intuitive Jeffersonian insight – that less political control from the centre sparks a more durable local politics, and paradoxically more loyalty to the centre over time – is your only chance here.
So now, on the very day that you read this, offer the SNP “Devo Max”, which is what a whopping 80 per cent of Scots wanted before the referendum. This practically means giving Edinburgh full autonomy, including on tax matters, within the United Kingdom.
In turn, echoing your canny frenemy Boris Johnson, think through a more federal system for the whole of the UK, giving up far more powers to England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, as well as to British cities. Federalism that is not uniform almost always fails, as cries of unfairness from the non-devolved portions of a country destroy it. You will have to move fast on this – to keep the SNP and your other enemies off balance and to dominate the new narrative. This is not in your nature, but you must do it nonetheless if you want to save the Union.
There are endless perils ahead to such a course. You will be turning Scottish economic policy over to people who ought to be riding in clown cars. Some unionist allies will tell you that you yourself are destroying the very basis of the Union, by working with nationalist forces. You will simply have to take the risk. At this critical juncture, in defiance of habits of a lifetime, you must not confuse caution and wisdom. For the wise thing now is to do the heroic thing, and set a course that can save the Union by acting boldly.
For what it’s worth, I for one desperately hope you will succeed.