An article in the Financial Times by Janan Ganesh on Christmas eve, 2013, identified three main challenges to David Cameron during 2014: the European parliament elections, in which the right-wing, anti-EU party UKIP is widely expected (not necessarily rightly) to come top, ahead of Labour and the Tories; the coming round of bankers’ bonuses, popularly regarded as unacceptable, and for which the government is likely to be blamed; and the widespread (but wholly unfounded) fear of Bulgarian and Romanian immigrants ‘flooding’ into the country, ‘stealing jobs from British workers and driving down their wages’, now that the ban on their unrestricted right to come here has been lifted, something that will also be blamed on the government in the unlikely event that it happens.
This forecast seemed to me to omit a fourth looming challenge, potentially even more damaging — to Britain as well as to Mr Cameron — than the three listed by Mr Ganesh. The FT published the following letter from me on 2 January 2014:
Financial Times, letters, January 2, 2014
An even bigger menace for Cameron in 2014
From Sir Brian Barder.
Sir, Janan Ganesh, in an otherwise characteristically perceptive article (“Labour’s agonies will prove hazardous for Cameron”, December 24) identifies May’s European parliament elections as “the most menacing event the government faces next year”, but he overlooks an equally hazardous prospect: the referendum on Scottish independence in September. Although current polling suggests a probable vote against independence, the negligent failure of the UK government to offer the Scots a constructive alternative to independence other than the status quo, with which very many Scots are clearly dissatisfied, risks a steady shift of opinion in Scotland in the next nine months that could easily result in a vote spelling the early disintegration of the UK.
There is no respectable reason not to offer what a majority of Scots obviously want, namely full internal self-government within an already semi-federal UK (admittedly implying eventual changes, long overdue, for non-self-governing England). The Liberal Democrats have hinted at support for such a policy but both Labour and the Conservatives seem too timid to risk even gingerly touching the nettle, still less grasping it. If the UK falls apart on David Cameron’s watch, he will surely pay a higher electoral price in 2015 for his delinquency than Ed Miliband, and that must represent a menace to the Tories at least as great as the European parliament elections, bankers’ bonuses or unfounded fear of Bulgarian and Romanian immigrants.
Brian Barder, HM Diplomatic Service (Rtd), London SW18, UK
The referendum to decide for or against Scottish independence is to take place on Thursday, 18 September, in less than nine months’ time. If the Scots vote to break up the UK and go their own way, the lion’s share of the blame should fall on the government at Westminster, headed by Mr Cameron, for his failure to provide Scotland with an alternative to both independence and the status quo, neither of which is wanted by most Scots (as argued in my FT letter), simply because the government of the day, which alone can act as well as talk, bears the primary responsibility for that failure to act in time to avert the disintegration of our country.
But an almost equal burden of responsibility rests on the shoulders of Ed Miliband and the Labour party as the only party of the two with a significant presence in all three of Scotland, England and Wales. If the three main unionist parties can’t agree on a promise of full internal self-government for Scotland in the event that the Scots reject the independence option, there’s no reason why Mr Miliband should not commit himself and his party to that promise, to be honoured if and when there’s another Labour, or Labour-led, government. Such a policy might well meet stiff opposition from the Scottish Labour party, with its visceral hatred of the SNP in general and The Two Fishes, Salmond and Sturgeon, in particular. But the stakes are too high to allow Scottish Labour to stand in the way of what may well be a necessary condition for the survival of the UK as a single sovereign country – especially when an offer of full internal self-government within an eventually fully federal UK is strongly desirable in its own right, and not just as a short-term gimmick to head off the independistas.
The temptation for Mr Miliband and his colleagues to do nothing, and hope for the best on 18 September, is clearly very strong. But on the lowest level of electoral prospects alone, the consequences for the UK Labour party if Scotland secedes will be very serious. It’s not true, as often asserted, that without its safe Scottish seats Labour would never again be able to form a government in the rest of the UK: Labour would be better placed than the Tories to take a lead in forging a new constitutional future for England in a new union with Wales and Northern Ireland, but it would require a huge effort to transform itself into a primarily English party.
Meanwhile doing nothing, which seems to be the posture of both the Labour and the Conservative parties, is just as much a policy option, with predictable potential consequences, as adopting the one brave and radical policy which stands a fighting chance of satisfying the legitimate ambitions of a majority of Scottish people, and which might thereby save the United Kingdom for our children and our children’s children. Over to you, Mr Miliband. Mr Cameron lacks the authority, imagination and courage to do what needs to be done. That leaves you.