By Steven Hill, Social Europe Journal, September 17, 2014
In Prime Minister David Cameron’s desperate entreaties towards his fellow countrymen in the North, one can hear the resounding bleat of his own policy failures. The theme of Cameron’s tenure has become one of “The Great Shrinking”: close to losing Scotland and its 5.3 million people, and also retreating influence within the European Union and the world.
It’s a stunning reversal of over six decades of progress toward restoring a bit of Britannia’s former glory. No one shoulders more of the blame for this predicament than the current resident of 10 Downing St.
David Cameron has made many tragic blunders that have placed the UK on the cusp of being not only a greatly diminished power but also a less reliable ally for the United States. The first of these blunders was a failure of leadership, not only of the nation but also within his own Conservative Party.
As party leader, Cameron badly miscalculated and mismanaged his party’s backbenchers and rank-and-file. He thought that he could play with the forces of “Brexit” (Britain exiting from the E.U.) as a lever to push reform within the EU, as well as to pander to certain elements of public opinion in order to win elections. He played with fire, and now he is feeling the heat.
Not only has UKIP (a party that favors independence from the European Union) increased in strength rather than diminished, but Scotland’s desire to remain in the EU is one of the factors driving the “Yes” vote for independence. And while the EU has reformed to some degree, none of it can be attributed to Cameron’s public temper tantrums over his disagreements with many of his erstwhile E.U. partners.
Cameron also badly misunderstood the divide between Scotland and a David Cameron-led UK. Professor Dauvit Broun from the University of Glasgow says that a significant factor behind the surge in support for Scottish independence is the widening gulf between what the Scottish people want and the policies pursued by Cameron’s government since 2010.
Most Scots have been opposed to Cameron’s austerity-led economic policies in the aftermath of the Great Recession. In particular, many Scottish voters have never supported Westminster’s attempts to reform — or in their view dismember — the support system for workers and families, otherwise known as the “welfare state.”
Moreover, the leaders of the independence movement such as Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond point out that the Cameron-led government was not elected by Scots. All of Scotland is represented by only a single Conservative MP, causing some pundits to point out that even giant pandas are better represented in Scotland (since the Edinburgh Zoo has two pandas). Conservatives in Scotland, in other words, are an endangered species. Scots want out from under the conservative thumb.
While Cameron and other Conservative leaders have badly misread the Scottish tea leaves, it’s not as if Labour Party leader Ed Miliband has been a paragon of leadership either. In fact, it’s been the lack of robust pushback from the left – and from Miliband in particular — when it comes to the bellowings of Brexit supporters as well as austerity acolytes that has created a political vacuum into which the Conservative Party has lurched further right, sucking the Labour Party along with it.
And this will not help Labour politically, quite the contrary. The overwhelming majority of Scottish MPs who would lose their seats post-independence are from the Labour Party. So Miliband’s forces in the House of Commons will be greatly diminished.
Lacking leadership from either the right or the left capable of staring down the nationalists within their own parties and beyond, the UK has been slowly drifting towards these seismic events. The worst-case scenarios are closer to blastoff, in which case the UK is poised to shrink both in size and GDP – losing 5.3 million Scots — as well as withdraw from Europe and become more isolationist. This is an abrupt – and disastrous – departure from the UK’s evolution in the post-World War II period, and will certainly result in the diminution of the UK’s importance in Europe as well as on the world’s stage.
The realization of either or both scenarios also makes the UK a less significant partner for the United States, not only in the transatlantic alliance but also within NATO and other international bodies. President Barack Obama naturally has stepped delicately around these issues, saying that it’s a decision for the people of Scotland to make. But his only statement hints at the UK’s expected loss of standing, saying:
We obviously have a deep interest in making sure that one of the closest allies we will ever have remains a strong, robust, united and effective partner.
So Cameron’s sudden desperation is understandable. He opened the Pandora’s box only to discover – surprise! – that he can’t control what he has unleashed. Finally even he appears to understand that the UK is standing at an abyss: of shrinking size, shrinking GDP and shrinking influence on the world’s stage.
Indeed, Cameron is showing himself to be the worst Prime Minister in the UK’s post-war history. If he loses in Scotland, he may still have a chance for a course correction when it comes to the UK’s relationship with Europe – if he isn’t thrown overboard by his own party. But the prime minister’s time is running out.