Tuesday 21 February 2012

Gove tells Tories to lay off the Scots

Michael Gove - that rare species, a Scottish Tory cabinet Minister - was our guest speaker at the Press Gallery lunch, just now.

Gove the Cove - a former Press and Journal staffer who was sacked during the infamous 1980s strike - laid out newslines quite liberally.

He made such a strong defence of the journalist freedoms currently being pilloried at the Leveson inquiry that I changed my mind on asking for my contributions to the P&J strike fund to be re-imbursed.

In his first intervention in the referendum debate (apart from helping write Cameron’s speech last week) he called for English Tories to lay off the Scots.

Gove, Education Secretary in England and part of the Cameron inner-circle, insisted The Prime Minister was an asset to the campaign to keep the UK together. But admitted some his colleagues had fallen into the trap of reciprocating nationalist victim culture with grudges of their own against Scotland.

Engaging in a grudge culture against devolution on issues like the Barnett funding formula of the West Lothian Question, the level of Scottish representation at Westminster, only work to open up the divide between the nations of the United Kingdom, he said.

There are always English MPs, Tory and other stripes, willing to trot out the line that England subsidises Scotand (not as much as it subsidises London, I say) and there is currently a parliamentary inquiry into the West Lothian question.

He's a good speaker so here's the unvarnished quotes of what he said on Scotland:

"One of the things I wanted to emphasis is that this is an argument that has to be won on several dimensions. Firstly we have to persuade Scotland that its future is stronger in the UK, than it would be if Scotland were to separate. We are stronger as a result of a our common endeavour over 300 years, we’ve achieved amazing things together, we pool risk more effectively, we safeguard the weak more effectively, we project our values because we stand together.”

"There is a threat to that from Scottish separatism, but there is also a threat, under appreciated, from English separatism as well. I think there is a specific threat from my own political tradition.

"There are some people on the right who say the Scots want to leave - let them. That is entirely the wrong attitude. It seems to me to be saying: 'This used to be a warm house where we all used to live together but, frankly - you daft besom -if you want to leave on your own head be it’. These are not the words of someone who wants to keep a marriage together.

"That is why, when some of my colleagues say we need to re-visit the West Lothian Question, or we need to have a new settlement that is fairer to people in England, I say no. Remember the bigger picture.

"The country was Great Britain for a reason, because we stood together and stand together. if we turn inwards and against each other then I feel we will undermine something that is precious and our country will be a diminished presence in the future.”

Thursday 16 February 2012

Cameron salts his porridge for Salmond

This blog's been gone too long. It's been such a busy month of politics that there's hardly been time to write a line that doesn't go to print - but that's an old excuse.

Whitehall goes to Holyrood today, albeit an empty Scottish Parliament where not even the public are allowed to tour the building while the MSPs are on holiday.

David Cameron is in town at the same time as I am - taking that first twirl on the dancefloor with Alex Salmond in this long elimination waltz to a referendum.

The two are meeting about now, while we all digest the contents of a very coherent speech from a British Prime Minister in defence of the UK.

Cameron spoke for the UK "head, heart and soul", as we had been briefed, but he may have over-extended himself by promising more devolution - if only the Scottish people reject outright the prospect of independence.

He refused to elaborate on what powers he might offer Holyrood, if the Scots choose to stay in the Union. Short of even more tax powers - the Scotland Bill will give the parliament power to raise a third of the taxes it spends - we're at a loss to see what he might mean.

Salmond has been quick to point out that this is an old Tory trick, promised by Sir Alex Douglas-Home a long time ago in the lead up to the 70s devolution referendum.

Without specifics it leaves Salmond facing an easy media goal this afternoon. But as the game is played out this "offer" of Cameron's may become more significant. Of course, it is not Cameron's offer at all, but that of George Osborne, the strategist who knows the Tories can't go into this referendum campaign simply saying No.

But back to the speech, which will be on the Downing Street website. It was far from the "threadbare" reasons for the UK that the SNP described it as.

Cameron began with humble pie, went on to condemn the Clearances (go tell 'em on Jura I whispered where his father-in-law has more deer than people on the island), and made the case for a fairer Britain.

There was a call to Labour arms - for Gordon Brown ,Alistair Darling, and John Reid to add their voices to the UK campaign - that didn't go unnoticed.

Strange to hear the case for social justice across the whole UK best articulated in Scotland by a Conservative Prime Minister. While the speech was good (hats off the former Guardian scribe turned Downing Street scriptwriter Julian Glover we're told) the human deliver mechanism - an Eton-educated, Conservative - might not be the best for Scottish ears.

Cameron acknowledged that in questioning, but his defence was that this, the Union, is what he believes in. With that vague vow on more powers Cameron may have slipped, or stepped on his partner's toe - the airwaves jury will decide. But, once again, Cameron shows he's not afraid to take the lead in this dance.