An interview with David Cameron
Alex Salmond makes it all the way to page two of his referendum memoir before turning his guns on you, I tell David Cameron. He describes you as a ‘silly, arrogant man’. What, I ask, is your response? No need to be tactful…
The Prime Minister smiles wryly. ‘Well, I’m a bit more polite than he is. I always find Alex someone who, after you’ve had the meeting, you’ve got to check your fingers and thumbs and, you know, whether he hasn’t pinched one of your socks. But I always managed to have a working relationship with him when it came to the issues that we needed to resolve.’
We are seated in a small, bright room beside the auditorium where Cameron has just helped Ruth Davidson launch the Scottish Conservative manifesto. It feels quite bold for the Tories to have chosen a venue in the East End of Yes-voting Glasgow — Salmond’s ‘Freedom City’ — and even more so given that venue is the Emirates Arena, which includes the Sir Chris Hoy velodrome. After all, one might suggest the Scottish Conservatives have spent the past few decades going round in circles.
Cameron is, however, energised by the occasion — he is jolly, expansive and looks surprisingly fresh. As I enter, he is raving about Davidson to his aides. ‘It’s really great to see… she’s got the Mo [momentum].’ That may be to overstate the eventual electoral outcome, but it is certainly true that Davidson has just turned in another bravura performance, practically upstaging the PM with her mix of passion and polish and her neat way with ad libs (‘David makes a good warm-up man,’ she says, cheekily). The Westminster press pack, who have followed the PM north, are impressed — as, clearly, is her boss.
So, would she make a good member of his Cabinet? ‘I think she would. I never put a limit on her abilities and ambitions. She has got what it takes in politics. She’s got oomf, she’s got spirit, she’s got brains, she leads a strong team and I think the referendum campaign showed her at her strongest — and she’s only grown stronger since then. I thought she was magnificent in the debates, particularly taking on Jim Murphy as well as Nicola Sturgeon. That’s what the Scottish Conservatives need. We’ve got the values and the principles that many people in Scotland share — support for the family and enterprise, and for being part of the United Kingdom. We’ve always needed really strong torch bearers, and just watching Ruth today, it made my heart sing.’
He is complimentary too about Nicola Sturgeon, saying he was unsurprised by her strong showing in the UK leaders’ debate and that he has always believed her to be ‘an effective politician’. He finds her ‘relatively straightforward’, but warns: ‘You have to remember with Nationalists that the list of demands they have is not a list to make the country better, it’s a list to break it up eventually, and so you have to bear that in mind when you deal with these people.’
And what about poor Jim Murphy, giving his all but staring down the barrel of electoral wipeout before he’s even properly made it back up the road? A poll by Lord Ashcroft yesterday suggested the new leader of Scottish Labour will even lose his own seat on May 7. Shades of the Scottish Tories and 1997, an event from which they’ve never recovered. What’s the Conservative advice?
‘We’re finding it’s a long, hard road back, but we’ve never given up and we never will give up because we are a party that really believes in the United Kingdom — much more deeply than I think people understand. People wonder whether the Conservative Party will become a bunch of English nationalists, but we will absolutely not. The Burns Night in the West Oxfordshire Conservative Association is probably the best attended event all year!’
And what about Murphy and Scottish Labour? ‘They’ve got to work out what they are: are they trying to be more left-wing than the SNP? Is he an old Blairite or a new leftie? I can’t work it out. I’m a bit baffled, actually. This week he seems to be a crypto-conservative! I mean, you know, be what you are, stick to it.’
Flicking through the manifesto, one statement that immediately struck me was ‘the question of Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom is now settled’. Cameron has used this phrase before, and I challenge him on it now. I live here, I tell him, and as a Unionist I don’t feel that the battle against the separatists has eased one iota since September (which is their choice). Sturgeon might yet pledge to hold a second referendum in her manifesto for the 2016 devolved election, an election in which she could win another SNP overall majority. ‘Settled’ isn’t even close: it’s an ongoing scrap for the UK’s survival. Let’s not be complacent.
‘I think the referendum was decisive,’ he insists. ‘It was a bigger margin than many people thought it would be as it came close to the day. Of course the debate continues and you feel that in Scotland. But I think there will come a time when things settle down, when the, sort of, conflict is over. That may take some time. There are quite a lot of political earthquakes going off in Scotland at the moment, but I take the long view and I think the long view is that Scotland wants to stay part of the United Kingdom. That was expressed in the referendum. I also take the view that a responsible government in Westminster can have a good relationship with the government in Holyrood even if that is a Nationalist government, as I demonstrated over the last five years. So I think there is a way through this, but it’s obviously more turbulent than people expected.’
That’s surely in part because you, on the morning of September 19, stepped into Downing Street after the No vote and said that more powers for Scotland must be tied to devolution south of the Border. You said of England that ‘all this must take place in tandem with, and at the same pace as, the settlement for Scotland.’ It sounded like a delaying tactic, a wobble on the famous ‘Vow’. In his book, Salmond writes, ‘I immediately realise the significance… Cameron has opened the door and we must drive through it quickly.’ Many Unionists believe that at that point you rekindled the dwindling Nationalist flame, and they dearly wish you hadn’t.
‘I don’t accept that because, first of all, the two are not tied. We’re all very clear that, whatever happens in the Westminster election, the extra powers for Scotland will go ahead. The only point I’m making is that if I’m prime minister, as well as them going ahead, but not conditional on them going ahead, there will be a measure of fairness and balance for England. Frankly, if we want the United Kingdom to work we have to address this question. I think the Labour position is extraordinary. They’re saying “we’ll work with you for Northern Irish devolution and we’ll work with you on Welsh devolution, we’ll work with you on Scottish devolution, but we won’t even speak to you about the situation in England”. Now this is just not credible, not sustainable. I think if I hadn’t addressed that point it would have needed addressing one day, two days, three days later in exactly the same way. I just got ahead of the argument and as prime minister set out what needed to be done.’
In truth, the only part of this I disagree with him on is the timing, which was akin to chucking a grenade amid the bruised souls and raw anger of the defeated Yes voters. We are where we are, but ‘three days later’ might indeed have been better from a ‘North British’ perspective.
I ask him what Scotland means to him as a man rather than a politician, and am not wholly unsurprised that his answer omits stag shooting and country estates. ‘I really believe in the family of nations, and what I love about our United Kingdom is that there are the common issues of identity — we all share our enthusiasm for the NHS, the BBC, for what the United Kingdom means overseas, for what we’ve done for the world, everything from tackling Ebola in Sierra Leone to defeating Hitler in the war. But I also think and like that through the diversity comes the strength. There are great differences in our nations, great varieties in everything from landscape to culture to literature, and I feel excited as a classic United Kingdom mongrel. I feel excited that I’ve got Lewellyn blood in my veins from Wales, I’ve got plenty of Scottish blood on both sides of the family, and a good dose of Middle England as well. That means I can bring up my children saying, “d’you know what, there’s a problem all over the world about how different identities and nationalities rub along together and, d’you know what, in these little old islands of ours we’ve managed to do it incredibly well”. You can feel Scottish and British. You can feel more Scottish than British. You can feel more English than British or more British than English. You can take your pick! That’s something to be very proud of and so that idea of building a civic identity across the United Kingdom, I find very exciting.’
It’s good to hear the PM talking like this: he’s clearly thought about it, much as we Scots were forced to confront our sense of our identity — our sense of ourselves — during the referendum campaign. But looking back on last year’s events, on the divisions that were created and remain, does he still think calling the referendum was the right thing to do?
‘You always have to ask, what would have happened if I said no? What would Alex Salmond be calling me if I’d said get stuffed? I think probably the Scottish Parliament would have held an illegal referendum and that would have been terrible.’ He puts a great deal of emphasis on that last word, and I suspect he is right. He is confident there is a ‘post-referendum stability’ to be found. ‘Don’t underestimate the extent to which the Smith process could, and I hope will, find a better resting place for our devolved settlement. Labour said devolution would kill off the idea of independence and that did not happen. Why did it not happen? Because I think the devolution process created parliaments and assemblies that had a lot of politics of grievance because you were responsible for spending money but not raising it, and you could always blame Westminster. I think this big element of tax devolution, while within a fiscal framework, could find a better resting place for devolution and I hope so.’
Leaving Scotland to one side for a moment, I ask how he thinks British politics will evolve in the years ahead as our society is transformed. I point to last year’s independence referendum, in which the Yes movement sprang free from political control and took on a democratic energy all of its own. I mention the rise of the outsider parties — Ukip, the SNP and the Greens — and that the days of alternating Labour and Conservative majority governments look to be gone for good. I suggest the digital revolution has changed the way voters interact with authority and with each other, and how they access information. Doesn’t he think the politicians have fallen some way behind the people — that the old-fashioned business of politics, the way people like him go about their affairs, needs to change in order to catch up?
For a political leader on a punishing schedule — he has jetted into Glasgow that morning and is about to head off to Ed Balls’s West Yorkshire constituency ‘to send him packing’ — being asked to think about the world beyond May 7 must be as welcome as discovering he’s been walking around all day with a ‘Vote Ukip’ sticker on his backside.
But he gives it a go. For one thing, he is far from convinced an overall majority is beyond him — although this sits awkwardly with Davidson’s comment last month that such an outcome ‘doesn’t look likely at the moment’. ‘As Richie Benaud would have said, it’s a pretty tough battle out there,’ he admits. ‘But it is doable — we only need 23 more seats. We can win them, and I don’t think Labour can. So if you want a majority government, if you want the decisiveness, if you want the accountability, if you want to make sure there’s no threat of a Labour/SNP conclave, this is the only way to do it and I’m confident it can be done.’
But what about those trends in voter behaviour? Surely we’ll have to revisit the voting system before too long, given how ill-suited First Past the Post is to our new six-way democracy? ‘Look, we had a referendum and decided, rightly in my view, to keep a decisive system, and I think behind the polls you can actually see quite a lot of opinion in Britain is “ok, coalition has worked because it was a historic situation, we were in a real economic mess, we needed parties to come together to sort it out”.
‘In terms of the way politics is changing, yes, we all have to use social media and different ways of communicating. Does that mean a more wholesale change in the way that politics works? I think it’s too early to say. So I think this election is going to be quite defining. We may find as we get closer to polling day that choices crystallise and that will make quite a difference.’
With that, we are done. I ask him to pose for a photo because my children refuse to believe I’m meeting him, which he does cheerfully. Then he is whisked off amid a crowd of advisers and burly minders. He genuinely seems to care about Scotland and the Union, not just as a political leader, but as a ‘classic United Kingdom mongrel’. But will Scotland ever feel the same about him and his party? As I leave the Emirates, police outriders have stopped the traffic. A man in a van rolls down his window and bellows repeatedly to a policeman, ‘Heh you! Why are we waitin’ here?’ As the PM’s convoy whips past, I tell him who the occupant is. His lip curls and he snarls ‘****in’ Tories!’ It truly is a long, hard road back.
This article appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on April 18, 2015