David Cameron, the UK prime minister, achieved an unexpected election victory on 7 May. After the euphoria, the scale of his challenges is becoming clearer. Cameron realises that Scotland and the European Union will dominate his second premiership. He can make one bold move to realise his goals.
Cameron should ask the Scottish National Party, with 56 of the 59 Scottish seats in the House of Commons, to join the UK’s team in Brussels to help Britain negotiate EU reforms ahead of a membership referendum.
To have the SNP – most probably represented by Alex Salmond, the party’s senior statesman and foreign affairs spokesman – alongside George Osborne, the chancellor of the exchequer, in these talks would serve several purposes. First, it would give substance to Cameron’s promise that he will ‘listen to the voice of Scotland’, and on a matter the Scots hold dear as well as the English. Second, it would present the rest of the EU not with a narrow party line but a more rounded UK team, reinforced by Salmond, still arguably one of the canniest politicians in the country. Third, assuming the talks on EU reform do not fail completely, by giving the SNP some ownership of the outcome, the Conservative government should lend extra force to its eventual campaign in support of continued EU membership.
Privately, the SNP might be horrified by the offer. It has all the makings of a trap. The party would be given responsibility without ultimate power, and would be tarred by the Conservative brush. The fate of the Liberal Democrats, whose reward for their coalition with Cameron in the 2010-15 parliament was so bitter, will loom large. But equally the party would find it very difficult to turn down the offer and publicly spurn the chance to help shape Scotland’s relationship with the EU.
For Cameron, there would be almost no downside. For this most surprising and unpredictable of prime ministers, it might be a masterstroke.
On the economic front, Cameron has to strengthen a still nascent recovery and manage an unbalanced economy where the twin deficits on the fiscal and current accounts remain too high. On top of this, Cameron faces three further interlinked tasks: keeping the UK in the EU, keeping Scotland in the UK, and keeping the Conservative party from tearing itself apart. All are possible. Failure in any one of the three missions would quite possibly precipitate failure on the other two as well.
It is very hard to see Scotland remaining in the UK if English voters demand a UK exit from the EU; and were both those unions to fail, the third union, between the pro-business pro-Europe wing of the Conservative party and the more inward-looking xenophobic wing, would not long survive them.
The first full week of Cameron’s new government was replete with statements and gestures on Europe. Many of them rather more constructive and conciliatory than the soundbites of the campaign trail. It ended with an Edinburgh meeting on 15 May between Cameron and Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP First Minister of Scotland.
That meeting was by all accounts more positive than might have been expected. Sturgeon and Cameron are far apart on the political spectrum, as the First Minister admitted, but that does not mean they cannot work together. History is replete with unlikely partnerships between political opposites – Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, for example, or Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin. Cameron and Sturgeon share one common goal, that of a prosperous Scotland.
Most of the Edinburgh meeting consisted of Cameron offering extra powers to Scotland, and Sturgeon asking for yet more on top. That is probably inevitable given the nature of devolved government. But perhaps Cameron can break the impasse over both Scotland and the EU by making Sturgeon and Salmond an offer they would find very difficult to refuse. If the threesome can work together over the EU, this could help Cameron pull off an accomplishment that could define his premiership and his place in history.
This blog first appeared on the Official Monetary and Financial Institutions Forum (OMFIF) site and is republished here with permission.