I was challenged the other day for calling David Cameron a dreadful Prime Minister who gambled our place in the EU to try and save a few Tory seats. In doing so he put his party before his country. The response was that Cameron simply offered the country the chance it was clamouring for, to have a say on the EU. He was therefore no different from Alex Salmond. Both merely fulfilled manifesto promises.
I disagree, and strongly. The country was not crying out for a say on the EU. The right wing of the Tory Party, UKIP, the Daily Express, the Mail and the Telegraph were, but these don’t constitute the country, though sadly they’re the only voices the current UK government wants to hear.
Cameron’s career has not merely ended in failure. History will show it collapsed in disgrace. He sacrificed his country to keep his party united. That is a shameful legacy. He brought about an outcome he believed to be wrong for the country, though good for his party. There may be legitimate reasons to wish to leave the EU, but Cameron rightly believed that it would be deeply damaging to the country. Yet he persevered with a seriously flawed referendum that will leave long term scars on the UK if it doesn’t hasten its end.
Cameron could have insisted on a rational, fair referendum that would have forced the Brexiteers to state a clear alternative destination after leaving the EU. The electorate would then have had a clear choice. He could have insisted on sensible safeguards to ensure a lasting decision wouldn’t be taken on a hasty whim based on a tiny majority, with many voters taking the chance simply to register a protest against his government. Leave were allowed to argue for totally contradictory outcomes that cannot be delivered. The result, at best, will be a poor compromise that will be supported by a minority of the electorate, and certainly fewer people than wanted to remain in the EU. Cameron opted for a simple, binary choice between the status quo and wishful thinking because he lacked the courage to confront his back-benchers and UKIP, who would have howled that a fair referendum was an establishment stitch-up. Instead Cameron chose to gamble the country’s future. Not only did he lose, but future generations will lose.
The comparison between Cameron and Salmond doesn’t work for many reasons. As a thought experiment consider what would have happened if Salmond had acted just like Cameron.
During the first SNP administration from 2007 Alex Salmond lost faith in the independence vision and decided that it was impractical. As a compromise with the party hardliners he persuaded the SNP to campaign at the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections to ask Westminster for devo max, with the promise of an in-out referendum on staying with the UK. There seemed little chance of the SNP winning a majority, so this seemed a sound tactical move to keep the SNP together. Unexpectedly the SNP won a majority. The UK government told Salmond to take a hike, and offered minimal, token changes (The Vow?). Chastened, Salmond then called the referendum, claiming that the concessions were the real deal, and campaigned, along with his close ally Sturgeon, to stay in the UK on these terms. He allowed his cabinet to dissent and campaign for independence, knowing the SNP would tear itself apart otherwise.
As FM, Salmond instructed the Scottish Civil Service to make no preparations for possible independence, and the Yes campaign lacked access to these civil servants. There was therefore no plan for independence, just a contest between a flawed but tweaked status quo and a wide variety of competing and inconsistent visions of independence. The referendum became partly a popularity poll on an increasingly beleaguered FM, with the Scottish press attacking Salmond at every opportunity, giving voters the impression that voting Yes was a safe protest against Salmond because No was bound to win.
To everyone’s surprise Yes won narrowly. Salmond immediately resigned, leaving a total shambles. The independence hardliners imposed Kenny MacAskill as SNP leader and Sturgeon was sacked. We had total chaos because there was a narrow mandate for independence, but no-one knew what that meant, or how it could be achieved. Periodically MacAskill surfaced on the TV uttering the profound words “independence means independence”. The only thing everyone was agreed upon was that Salmond had made a disgraceful mess of things, putting party before country. Salmond’s place in history as an incompetent gambler, obsessed with short term tactical gains rather than the long term benefit of his country would be secure.
Cameron, meanwhile, went on as Prime Minister having wriggled out of his committment to an EU referendum. Suddenly referendums had become vulgar displays of popular prejudice in which the careers of nice posh boys could get seriously damaged by an ungrateful and unpredictable hoi polloi.
The only difference between Cameron and the counter-factual Salmond is the outcome of Cameron’s blunders happens to suit the current mood of the UK tabloid press and that sets the whole media agenda. History will catch up with Cameron, eventually. Maybe the real Salmond was and is wrong? At least we know what he believed in. Cameron? He believed only in winning, and as a result lost catastrophically. Just how badly we have all lost we have yet to see.