Wednesday 11 May 2011

Charles Kennedy, the Union needs you!

Alex Salmond is the master of all he surveys in Scotland, having been sworn in as First Minister of the Scottish government yesterday with a majority of the Holyrood parliament.

The Westminster government appears to have, in effect, conceded to Salmond the timing and the content of a referendum on Scottish independence. Legally, Salmond's SNP majority does not give him the power to call a referendum, a reserved power. Politically, it does. So Downing Street has already made clear that its view is that a battle of legal technicalities would help the Nats stir up support for a breakaway.

Having conceded a good deal of territory, tactically, so as not to oppose Salmond on technicalities, it becomes ever important for those who don't want an independent Scotland within a few years to begin thinking now about how to win the argument for the relevance of the British union today on substance.

Scottish political leaders have been falling on their swords in surrender - with the Tories, Liberal Democrats and Labour all now looking for new Scottish leadership.

So who will speak for Britain as Scots prepare to debate and decide whether they wish to remain part of it?

If David Cameron and Nick Clegg to take the defence of the Union as seriously as they say that they will, one of their first steps should be to agree that they will need to appoint a new Scottish Secretary, as soon as possible. Michael Moore has a good claim to be the least well known member of the Cabinet having replaced Danny Alexander in the post when David Laws left the government in its first few weeks.

Moore seems a decent enough fellow to me, but he simply does not have anything like the profile to be a major presence in the Scottish discourse.

The risk is that Alex Salmond will have the Scottish political airwaves far too much to himself.

So the Coalition parties, both pro-Union, to take seriously the task of working out who would be their best possible lead public advocate for the Union. But this is difficult, when neither of the Westminster governing parties has a strong Scottish presence. The Tories have not yet shaken off their post-Thatcher toxicity. The focus on SNP triumph, Labour humiliation and LibDem meltdown meant the Scots Tories managed to get away without too many people noticing that they once again broke all previous records to poll their lowest ever Tory share of the Scottish vote. Yet that worst ever Scottish Tory performance was enormously better than what the LibDems achieved. Despite their traditionally strong Celtic presence, the LibDems polled extraordinarily badly in the list vote across Scotland, almost disappearing from the Scottish political map in the Holyrood elections, being reduced from 17 seats to five, holding two island constituencies, and three top-up list seats on the mainland.

The LibDems polled just 5.2% across Scotland on the list vote, well under half of the support of the Scottish Tories on 13.9%. The Coalition's contribution to the argument against independence clearly needs to form one part of a much broader and pluralist campaign.

My first choice for a Scottish Secretary to play a major role in the public debate would be former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy.

Kennedy didn't vote for this Coalition government at the LibDem Parliamentary and Federal Executive meeting a year ago. That independence may be another reason as to why Kennedy might retain the personal profile to transcend the Scottish eclipse of his party.

The story of the comeback of a politician who has retained much public popularity through personal troubles might provide some challenge to Salmond's own extraordinary public and political resilience.

So Charles Kennedy seems to me to be, and by some very considerable distance, the best politician that the Tories or the Liberal Democrats have between them to make the case for the Union with an ability to persuade rather than repel Scottish voters, and to work with advocates across the party spectrum and civic society to do so.

If we are going to persuade outselves that we want to remain, as citizens, within this British Union, then the defence of the Union can not be a project only of a battered Labour Scottish establishment, nor of Tory England.

It will be Scottish voters who decide on the Union for both Scotland and England. Those in England who want to remain British too have an important stake in this debate. Whether there is a positive British case to be made, and how, was a dilemma discussed at an informal post-elections gathering hosted by the ippr and Our Kingdom/Open Democracy yesterday evening. There was a strong sense from both Scottish and English participants that, if the English mood projected by the media is dominated by a sour English debate about the Scottish as subsidy junkies, or is dominated by a very English idea of what Britishness is all about, then those who want to stand up for staying British could harm the cause they believe in. (The Scottish elections should also now catalyse the debate in England about what the English case is for the Union, and what representation of the English voice the English might want, within or outside it).

So a willingness to enlist Charles Kennedy would also be one small step in symbolising something that David Cameron and every other English advocate of why we are better off together as the British need to think about - how to build the broadest possible coalition to make the positive and optimistic case for the Union which he has promised.

It is a case which should be made both north and south of the border.

So what should it involve?


Munguin said...

I really don’t think that someone who had (I’m not sure if he still has) a problem with the bottle is the best person to lead anything at all. If you remember he was unable, for example, to give the Lib Dem response to the budget because he had indulged a little too much. And this was a secret that was kept from the public for years. Do you really think someone with a track history of unreliability is the best person to put up against a class act like Alex Salmond? Not to mention of course whether he likes the coalition or not he still supports it, leastways I have never heard him roundly condemn it, and seeing as the Lib Dems are the poison of the day in Scotland his association with them would always be a huge elephant in the room which Alex would be mad not to continually remind people of.

Anonymous said...



Charles Kennedy has other battles to fight.

I for one wish him well there.

Unknown said...

You will need to do a lot better than this. "those who don't want an independent Scotland." Why don't you want an independent Scotland? You need to come up with some pretty convincing reasons - and none were mentioned in your post - before bothering about who might articulate these reasons. Seems to be just another example of the bankruptcy of Unionism.