Iain Mcwhirter analyses the relationship between the two Cabinet reshuffles this week, north as well as south of the border
The formidable Nicola Sturgeon is to become the leading edge of the Yes campaign in a surprise reshuffle that dramatically ups the stakes in the Scottish independence referendum. While David Cameron has been shuffling to the right with his new Westminster Cabinet, Alex Salmond has gone the other way and placed Scotland’s leading nationalist left-winger in the front line in the battle over Scotland’s destiny. Here is the message loud and clear, in case you hadn’t got it yet: “Vote Yes to keep Tory hands off Scotland”.
It was Mr Salmond’s first comprehensive reshuffle and mischievously timed to upstage the Prime Minister’s. Alex Neil becomes Health Secretary, a remarkable achievement for a politician who was long regarded as a natural outsider, not least by the First Minister. Ms Sturgeon takes over his infrastructure brief, but will also have responsibility for the constitution and strategy for the referendum. This means she will be working alongside Blair Jenkins, the high-powered former BBC news and current affairs executive who is now the chief executive of Yes Scotland. The legendary spin-doctor, Kevin Pringle, has already left Mr Salmond’s side to devote his skills to the referendum strategy, which makes for a pretty remarkable team. The phoney war is over. Expect a one-question referendum to be announced within weeks.
Meanwhile, in Westminster, Mr Cameron’s newly-shuffled Cabinet is more white, more right, more southern, more male, more Tory. Just what Dr Salmond ordered, in fact, as the political backdrop to the 2014 independence referendum, in which the Yes campaign will now be led by a politician who is none of the above. This Coalition reloaded will be tougher on welfare, tougher on crime, tougher on NHS reform, tougher on public spending cuts, tougher on the environment, tougher on Scotland.
The Liberal Democrats are sinking without trace, as Mr Cameron remakes the Coalition in his own Tory image. Lords reform is history, a wealth tax a non-starter, bank reform a lost cause – under this Westminster Government at any rate. A clutch of right-wingers, like Michael Fallon, have been embedded in the office of the Liberal Democrat Business Secretary, Vince Cable, to keep him in check. Mr Cameron’s new administration looks and sounds even more myopically metropolitan, preoccupied with London’s third airport, free schools and the political ambitions of London’s Mayor.
We have the Work and Pension Secretary Iain Duncan Smith pushing through his controversial Universal Credit next April, which guarantees that the media will be filled with misery tales of families who’ve lost their benefits. Out goes the moderate Ken Clark from Justice, to be replaced with an unreconstructed, lock-’em-up Tory in Chris Grayling. Rupert Murdoch’s favourite lobbyist, Jeremy Hunt, takes over the privatisation of the NHS in England. And, of course, the Chancellor George Osborne – a politician so popular that he was booed at the Paralympics – continues at the helm of an economy that is sinking fast. This means the austerity will continue unabated. As will the borrowing, because without growth there is no way of reducing the debt. More borrowing will mean more cuts, as the recession grinds on and on towards the 2015 General Election.
Yes, this is exactly what the First Minister was hoping for. Mr Salmond believes that a lurch to the right in Westminster will persuade many non-Nationalists that the only way for Scotland to avoid being under the heel of the Tories is to vote for independence. This is of course a political non-sequitur. You could just as easily say that now is the time to vote Labour to build the challenge to Conservative hegemony in the UK. 2014 will not be a referendum about the Tory government in London but about the constitutional future of Scotland.
Better Together (if it ever gets its act together) could do well to argue that now is precisely not the time for Scotland to turn inwards and retreat from UK politics. Mr Salmond wants to keep the Queen, the pound and the Bank of England, which will allow the London Establishment to retain a stranglehold on the Scottish economy. Yet the SNP wants to remove Scotland’s influence in Westminster, where the decisions are made, by pulling Scottish MPs out of Parliament. Why should we retreat from the forum that decides on broader foreign policy, defence and currency issues? Scotland has its own Parliament for domestic affairs in Holyrood but there are going to be very many issues of common concern that are inevitably decided in Westminster.
Moreover, the SNP appears now to be arguing that Scotland doesn’t have to leave the United Kingdom after independence; that it can and will remain in a new improved “social” Union with a tartan heart. How will Scotland’s voice be heard at the centre of that union? If Scots, as the new Health Secretary, Mr Neil, puts it, can still call themselves “British” after independence, shouldn’t they be represented in the British Parliament?
The lurch to the right cuts both ways. The Tories are now committed to pursuing a discredited austerity programme that is going to prolong recession and inflict severe damage on the economic fabric of Britain. There is no hint of a “big bazooka” growth programme to pull the country out of slump, only more hair shirt. This is not an election winner, and with the Coalition disintegrating, it means that Labour could soon be in contention for the 2015 General Election, perhaps in coalition with the Liberal Democrats. How would it change the political equation in Scotland, if Scots voters see an end to Tory rule in England?
So, the SNP can’t rely on the Tories to win the referendum for them. It is going to take a lot more hard work and argument to justify abandoning Scotland’s presence in the Westminster Parliament. This debate has yet to begin in Scotland, and the outcome is tantalisingly uncertain. We know there are many Scottish voters – around 40% – who are not Nationalists but believe that Scotland should have more say over its own affairs. Anecdotally, I find an increasing number of natural Labour voters intrigued with the idea that a Scottish Parliament might be the only way to ensure a social democratic Scotland. The phrase I kept hearing across Scotland this summer was: “I’m not a Nationalist, but…” It will be Nicola Sturgeon’s job to fill in the dots, and if anyone can, she can.