The local and Euro-elections are done. As always happens in the unfailingly cyclical business of politics, we take a breather and start thinking about the next one.
This year, of course, our normal annual cycle is disrupted by that pesky little referendum. Yes, the one that could conceivably break apart the United Kingdom and throw politics-as-we-know it into convulsions, whose aftershock would last for decades, if not centuries.
Conceivably, of course, does not mean probably. While not impossible, it seems pretty unlikely that the Yes campaign will win (and if it does, all bets are clearly off).
Assuming it doesn’t, the scenario we might project is that Labour, which has largely spearheaded the campaign (in view of the little love the Scottish electorate at large has for the Conservative Party), comes off as the proxy winner and that that winning momentum rolls us through the following half-year until a close-run, but ultimately successful, general election result.
That, at least, is how we would like to see things. However, although we might have a pleasant moment in the sun as we enjoy having led the charge which defeated Salmond, it may also be neutralised by an effect few have even considered.
The annoying thing for us is that Cameron has, as
John Rentoul observed in his Independent on Sunday column, actually done rather a good job on Scotland – it is a moment of bipartisanship, after all – and it is likely to be as much his moment as ours.
Let us now look at why he has done well (the areas of his leadership where he has done poorly are numerous enough). It is easy to say that he has done nothing; but take a look at the counterexample of his Spanish counterpart, Mariano Rajoy. Catalonia, which has had a nationalist government for most of the last forty years, is asking for a similar referendum.
In order to prevent secession, Rajoy is, ill-advisedly, sitting on the constitution, which technically forbids secession. You can’t do this, he says, because this piece of paper says you can’t. But this stupidly ignores (a) fairness, (b) international precedents, such as the United Nations right to self-determination, and (c) the effect that his denial of democracy has on the Catalan population.
Naturally, the more you tell someone they can’t have something, the more they want it. A referendum Rajoy would have probably once won easily will now be close, when he or his successor is finally forced into having one. Or he may even lose, thereby losing not only Spain’s second city but its principal economic motor, the Catalan industrial belt. Politically, he could scarcely have bungled an important matter of state more effectively.
In marked contrast, what has Cameron said to the Scottish public? “Referendum? No problem, no problem. When do you want it?”
And then, after a short pause, almost whispered: “you are really sure about this, aren’t you? Big step, y’know”. Thereby making many Scots reflect on whether they are sure. Most are not.
Cameron will have done many things by the end of his five-year term, but this is the only one of historical significance (apart from navigating the country’s first post-war coalition, which I’m not sure anyone cares about); that a challenge to the unity of the United Kingdom was seen off on his watch.
It may well, therefore, be tricky for Labour to extract advantage from something which will be a massive diversion from politics-as-usual for half of the remaining term, and which may reasonably be painted as at least a joint triumph, in which Cameron can play the statesman. In an environment where he already has the advantage of incumbency and personal polling, this is not very good news for Labour.
If you think about it, it’s simple: history is more likely to remember the Prime Minister at a historical turning point than the Leader of the Opposition. It’s not remotely fair, given that it’s our party which will have done the vast majority of the local campaigning, but there it is. Above and beyond that, the clearer-headed commentators and opinion-formers will acknowledge that he did a good job. He has done.
Once the grand diversion is over, we will have six months left of the parliamentary term, but by then we may well have a much firmer idea who will win the next election. Let’s hope that it’s us.
This post first published at Labour Uncut