Trouble in Toryland as the referendum gets rocky

The possibility of Scottish independence has got our rulers in a tizzy, writes Anindya Bhattacharyya.

Vote Yes graffitti

Photo: Brian Smith, flickr

What a weird week it’s been. Monday night saw YouGov’s announcement that its latest Scottish referendum poll had the Yes camp on 51%. This sparked jubilation among independence campaigners. But the reaction of political establishment south of the border was little short of bizarre.

On Tuesday we were treated to Cameron, Miliband and Clegg jointly declaring that they would forgo the weekly Commons ritual of Prime Minister’s Questions and traipse up north to save the Union instead.

In the event they were careful not to be photographed together – presumably their aides had explained that a “united front” of hated Westminster politicians was perhaps not the best way to win back Scottish affections.

The Guardian’s Steve Bell offers his verdict on the terrific threesome

The Guardian’s Steve Bell offers his verdict on the terrific threesome

The panic is present across the political spectrum, but it reaches delirious levels on the right. The Daily Telegraph in particular has been an absolute joy to read, as one columnist after another came out with increasingly deranged arguments for why the No camp should prevail.

Most of these would have been thoroughly counterproductive had any wavering voters been reading the paper (which I doubt). Andrew Lilico’s effort on Monday bore the charming and persuasive headline “Scots, hear me! Britain is great”. It went on to list Great Britain’s great qualities, including the mystifying claim that this imperial nation had been “unselfish in its devotion” to saving others from oppression and war.

On Wednesday Allison Pearson made a moving appeal to our sense of duty and chivalry. “The Queen loves Scotland. Who would wrench it from her?” she asked. Well – around half of those beloved but traitorous Scots at the very least, by the looks of it.

Meanwhile Janet Daley was busy unearthing reds under the bed. Alec Salmond was “the Hugo Chavez of the North” and planned to turn Scotland into a “Public Sector Union Heaven”. In case readers find this difficult to imagine, the paper helpfully illustrated it with a photoshop of Salmond as Chavez:

The Telegraph’s symbolic depiction of the perils of Tartan Communism

The Telegraph’s symbolic depiction of the perils of Tartan Communism

Of course the reason for all this wailing and gnashing of teeth is simple – they didn’t see it coming. When the referendum was first mooted, Cameron insisted on playing hardball and making it a straight choice between independence or nothing (rather than offering a third “devo max” option of boosting devolution yet further, which is probably what the SNP was hankering for).

You can see his logic in retrospect. A similar tactic over the Liberal Democrat demand for a referendum on proportional representation had resulted in a humiliating rebuff for advocates of voting reform. The Tories were assuming the independence referendum would plough a similar course – creating a massive row on the social democratic left (broadly defined) north of the border but never actually imperilling the Union.

That has turned out very much not to be the case – thanks in no small part to the radical left, as Suki Sangha and David Jamieson point out in the latest issue of rs21 magazine. If the Yes camp does come out on top, Cameron is toast – despite rather desperate suggestions that he could stay as prime minister and negotiate terms of the divorce. But even if No wins narrowly, it is unlikely that the Tories will forgive a leader who almost lost Scotland on his watch.

You had one job, Mr Prime Minister…

You had one job, Mr Prime Minister…

The point here is that the senior echelons of the Conservative party take the Union very, very seriously – far more so than normal folk who might get a bit sentimental over Winston Churchill and the Spice Girls but don’t actually hold the nation’s peculiar constitutional arrangements in near religious awe.

But for High Tories the situation is very different. They understand the profound connections between the Union, the Empire and the British ruling class’s international clout – which might not be quite what it used to be, but still packs a punch when they need it. The admission by sources at the Ministry of Defence that they simply have no contingency plans if the SNP follows through on its promise to scrap Trident tells its own tale here.

As usual with the right wing press, you have to turn to the business pages to get a grip on reality. Former Nato chief Lord Robertson spells out the consequence of a Yes vote directly: “For the second military power in the West to shatter would be cataclysmic in geopolitical terms.”

Roberston was speaking to Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, the Telegraph’s international business editor. He puts the Scottish referendum in the context of a wider fragmentation of national authority as ruling classes across Europe fail to get to grips with the 2008 financial crash.

For Evans-Pritchard the prospect of escalating ruling class crisis is a grave one: “The Scottish precedent threatens – or promises, depending on your view – to set off a chain reaction.” We on the socialist left should be saying: bring it on. There’s a week to go and all to play for. But if the Yes camp prevails, it won’t just be the map of Britain that’ll be losing its head.

How Scottish referendum opinion poll results have changed over time

How Scottish referendum opinion poll results have changed over time

Photo: Brian Smith, flickr

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