Seven months ago, a tear in his eye, David Cameron said this about Scottish Independence:
Sometimes people say to me why do you feel so strongly about it? After all coming to Scotland, here you are a Tory leader with one MP. Wouldn't your life be easier, wouldn't you be able to get a majority more easily if Scotland were to separate itself from the UK? My answer to that is that I care far more about my country than I do about my party. I care hugely about this extraordinary country, this United Kingdom that we have built together. I would be heartbroken if this family of nations we have put together – and we have done such amazing things – was torn apart.
These are strong, heartfelt words. David Cameron loves Scotland so much that he would go against the interests of the party he leads just to keep Scotland with us. The United Kingdom is a family and he doesn't want it torn apart.
What in the name of actual fuck does David Cameron think he meant by those words? Because nothing he has done since then has suggested a warm familial attitude to Scotland. First, his response to the No vote was to announce a plan for a gerrymandering series of reforms that would sever Scotland from England in parliament. English votes for English laws is a view of this United Kingdom that suggests some parts of it are significantly less united than others. The people of Langholm would not be permitted to influence events 5 miles away over the border in Penton, but the constituents of Berwick-upon-Tweed are permitted to decide on matters pertaining to Penzance 500 miles away, purely because they are both in England. 83% of Tory MPs believe in scrapping the Barnett formula, thus depriving Scotland of considerable taxed income. Iain Duncan Smith's welfare reforms have disproportionately hit Scotland with its significant pockets of deep poverty. Cameron has jubilated over the declining value of oil, suggesting that this has torpedoed all of the SNP's plans for independence, even though it only actually, practically affects his own government's balance sheet. Cameron loves the Scots? Imagine if he hated them. This is the the family of nations as arranged by Josef Fritzl.
Nothing much has come of these plans because Cameron put the demob-happy William Hague in charge and the whole issue has kind of been ignored in this election. Or rather, it's been overtaken by a new issue. Scotland will clearly be voting for the SNP in large numbers. This will hit Labour very significantly, who have always been able to rely on 50 or so Scottish MPs to boost their numbers. Now most of those MPs will fall to the Nationalists.
This is a problem for the Tories. They don't want to discourage people from voting SNP, because they love the effect it's having on Labour. But they don't want those new nationalist MPs to form any kind of pact or coalition or confidence and supply arrangement with Labour. After the election, the Tories will want to press ahead and try to form a government, possibly in Coalition. But there are two problems here: first, the Lib Dems look likely to be massacred in this election; it's very unlikely that the current Coalition will muster enough votes to form a stable government. If the Tories add the 3-4 UKIP seats, I can't believe the Lib Dems would play ball. Second, last time, the Tory spin doctors quickly put it about that once the election results were known that Labour had lost the moral authority to form a government and an exhausted Labour Party seems to have agreed. So the initiative was all with the Tories. Next time, the situation is likely to be reversed. Because of both of these factors, Labour should be in a strong position to start discussions with potential parliamentary partners.
Which is why the Tories are now mounting the most deceitful and dishonest and fundamentally undemocratic election campaign that I can remember. They went into it believing in Lynton Crosby's strategy that the poll numbers were about to turn in their favour and that Ed Miliband was their secret weapon. But as it happens the voters seem to like Ed Miliband the more they see him and the polls have resolutely failed to go Cameron's way. So they've floundered, offering a completely uncosted and unexplained £8bn for the NHS per year, making ridiculous comments about Ed stabbing the country in the back the way he apparently stabbed his brother. But now they have plan B. They are condemning the SNP as dangerous people, extremists, and their leader, Nicola Sturgeon* as the most dangerous woman in Britain and warning us all of the terrifying consequence of letting her play any role in national policy.
Why are they doing this? Two reasons. First, it encourages the idea that if you vote Labour, you don't know who you're voting for. But so what? That's true of everyone. This is almost certainly going to be a hung parliament. The Tories might try to work with UKIP. We have no idea. Who thought, voting Lib Dem in 2010, that they were lending their support to the Bedroom Tax, £9k university tuition fees, and universal credit? In fact, it should make us more likely to vote for the parties we believe in to give them weight in any policy negotiation.
Second, and this is what I think lies behind this strategy, what the Tories hope is that they can poison the idea of any deal between Labour and the SNP to create a fatal pause after the election, that Labour will hesitate before talking to the Scottish Nationalists, and in that pause, the Tories will seize the initiative and try to assemble a coalition (which, if it's close, might just include Nigel Farage sitting at the Cabinet table). Obviously, it's perfectly reasonable for David Cameron to disagree with SNP policies.** But the suspicion is he's very happy to do it (knowing that an Old Etonian Tory criticising the SNP probably adds a percentage point or two to their poll showings) and actually he's trying to gerrymander what happens in the post-election negotiations and that's much more sinister.
An answer to some of the UK's regional inequalities is greater devolution, not just to Scotland, but to Wales and Northern Ireland too, and, indeed, to the English regions. There are democratic deficits here; London has wildly disproportionate power, influence, wealth and cultural power compared to Manchester or Leeds or Newcastle or Liverpool, and that should change. Maybe there should be regional assemblies. The special regional character of Cornwall might deserve some formal recognition. Regions, within a distributive national framework, should be empowered to enact policy in ways that responds to local conditions. But you can't cherrypick the democratic deficits you like. It may not suit Cameron for the SNP to play a role in national government, but that's tough. You can't believe in a United Kingdom and deny one part of this 'family of nations' a role in governing the country. (In any case, the Scots have had decades of being ruled by parties for whom they overwhelmingly didn't vote. I'm struggling to recall David Cameron denouncing that injustice.)
It's hard to know what Cameron meant by 'better together' when, in practical terms, he seems so frantic to separate. It's like a faithless husband, insisting that his wife stays by him for appearance's sake, while reserving the right to philander and making her sleep in the guest bedroom. Darling, it will all be fine, as long as you do what I say.
I don't claim to be any sort of expert on Scotland, but my sense is that this isn't an attitude to which the Scots respond well. My worry is that the Labour Party, shocked by the collapse of their vote in Scotland, desperate to make their substantial reinvention under Miliband work electorally, scared of the overwhelming and deliberate hostility of the right-wing press, will be cowed by this campaign and will fatally hesitate after election day. They shouldn't and I think progressives should be very firm about this: there is no good reason to block SNP participation in a national government.
A Labour-SNP Coalition (or alliance, or pact, or agreement) could, I think, make for a popular and progressive government for the whole of the UK. Ironically, it would be a far better embodiment of the principle of Better Together than anything the Tories have offered.
* I say Nicola Sturgeon. It's taken Cameron and Clegg a very long time to accept that the leader of the SNP is a woman. The Tories published a poster showing Miliband in Alex Salmond's pocket and Nick Clegg suggested that the public had a choice of kingmakers between Salmond, Farage and him. This is, unfortunately, very old-fashioned sexism. It's basically saying 'Nah, not being funny, love, but can I talk to your boss?'
** Though, let's also remember that the Tories were quite happy to support minority SNP administrations in Holyrood in the 2000s, something that Cameron has conveniently forgotten and has inconveniently been reminded of.