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David Cameron's shirtfronting impotence

  • 07 November 2014

Apart from igniting the interest of Scottish expatriates, of whom there are many in Australia, and others with more general Caledonian interests, the recent referendum to decide for or against Scotland’s independence from the United Kingdom did not much engage the antipodean imagination. New Zealand was dealing with its own poll and, as so often, we in Australia were busy contemplating among other things our leaders’ enthusiastic courtship of another foreign war. 

In Scotland, however, and – in the last weeks before the vote as Unionist alarm was kindled by the prospect of defeat – throughout England, the national mood was volatile, the debate sharp, incendiary, uncompromising. With the defeat of the ‘Yes’ vote, the sense of disappointment in Scotland, of a golden opportunity lost forever, was profound and palpable.

‘Did we cry?’ wrote essayist Kathleen Jamie, from her home in Fyfe, ‘Of course … our hopes had run high. When that opinion poll appeared putting “Yes” ahead, the one that sent Westminster into a flat spin, I actually thought, my god, maybe we can swing this … By then, of course, Scotland was suffering full scale Unionist psychic battering, Project Fear in hyperdrive. But for a few weeks the bullying, elitist, rapacious United Kingdom establishment had stood exposed. Here. In my country. Scotland. It was absolutely bloody brilliant. It was beautiful and now it’s over and we’ve shed a tear and that’s that.’

Well, of course, not quite. By late Saturday night the drama was certainly over, the Unionists had won. By Sunday evening the ‘vow’ formally, publicly and solemnly made to Scotland by British Prime Minister David Cameron, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Leader of the Labour Opposition Ed Miliband that a successful ‘No’ vote would see Scotland granted ‘more powers’ was being quietly shelved. ‘They didn’t even have the grace to wait till Monday,’ Jamie noted.

Geographically this passionate confrontation could hardly be more distant from sunny Australia; psychologically and politically, however, the reactions of both Scots and English commentators – writer and film maker Tariq Ali, political scientist David Runciman, journalist Neal Ascherson, historian Colin Kidd, author Jenny Turner among many others of varied political affiliations and backgrounds – reveal tantalising congruencies for interested Australians. There are, for a start, the smoothly broken promises.

Originally, what came to be known as the devo-max vow – shorthand for the promised devolution to Scotland of most powers excluding