Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

David Cameron's shirtfronting impotence


David Cameron

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 defence and foreign affairs but regarded by some ‘Yes’ voters as likely to morph into ‘Independence Lite’ – appeared on the front page of Scotland’s Daily Record ‘mocked up’ in the words of Jamie, ‘to look like ancient parchment’ and thus to carry a kind of faux historical clout. It was partly the desperate publicity of the vow that made it look in retrospect cynical and ephemeral when it began so promptly to unravel.

Then there was the powerful wave of Anglophilia whipped up by a ‘relentlessly Unionist’ press with appeals, familiar to Australians, to the Union Jack, the enduring relevance and centrality to the nation of the Mother Country, the importance of the Royals, selective historic versions of English-Scottish comradeship, and so on. And, as the pace of events quickened towards the day of voting, there was the phenomenon referred to by both Tariq Ali and Kathleen Jamie as ‘Project Fear’ – ‘psychic battering’ day after day to convince ‘Yes’ voters of their delinquency, their moral turpitude in seeking to undo the 1707 Act of Union, what Australians would recognise as ‘ban the Burqa’ moments when ideological crudity tips over into at best ludicrous and at worst dangerous farce. Farce, however, became a weapon briefly for the ‘Yes’ cause, as Jamie reports, when ‘sixty Labour MPs [were] trucked up [to Glasgow] to make us see sense. They were chased through the streets by a guy in a rickshaw … playing the Star Wars theme and hollering through a megaphone: ‘Welcome, imperial masters! Welcome to Scotland … people of Glasgow, here are your imperial masters!’ What would this man would have made of a country fresh from re-instating imperial Knights and Dames?

But if some aspects of the English/Scottish confrontation rang interesting bells for Australians, there was one area of stark difference. When the Scottish independence campaign was well launched, David Cameron had to tread cautiously on the question of British support for the war against Islamic State. Precipitate involvement would have been grist to the ‘Yes’ vote mill in the tense referendum atmosphere. Not so Tony Abbott for whom international hot spots far from Australian shores offered an opportunity to strut the world stage, take people’s minds off domestic affairs and lift the pall of governmental confusion and unpopularity with a bit of shirtfronting. While Cameron eventually put the question of committing to fight Islamic State to his parliament, Abbott, like a footballer with white line fever, barged in with executive impatience and we were at war before we, or parliament, quite realised.

‘Scotland’, says Kathleen Jamie, ‘is a country not a brand.’ Likewise, some of us down here might want to insist, Australia is a nation not a team.

Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is honorary professor of English at Flinders University and an award winning columnist and biographer.

Topic tags: Brian Matthews, politics, Scottish Referendum, Tony Abbott, shirtfronting, David Cameron



submit a comment

Existing comments

I think Scottish Independence is not quite so black and white but more nuanced, Brian. As far as land ownership goes Scotland is far, far more inequitable than England or Australia. The vast tracts of the Highlands are basically owned by very few landowners whose families have held them for centuries and whose ancestors were responsible for the dreadful evictions in the past. Some of the greatest Scottish families have held the highest office in the UK below the Crown: that of Prime Minister; they have also been Viceroys of India; Governors-General of Australia and Canada; British ambassadors and defence force chiefs. They are well connected in London, Edinburgh and US and European business circles. Edinburgh does about 25% of the City of London's financial business. By and large these are the people who would be the backbone of the Unionist cause. Post-industrial Glasgow and many of those there and in the other large urban areas who are not so much part of the Scottish elite and many in cultural circles might tend more to Independence. How would have Scotland gone if the vote had gone "Aye"? A hard call because there was so much disinformation from both parties.

Edward Fido | 06 November 2014  

An Australian friend who has lived in London for 40 years insists, pace Edward Fido, that the English will never elect a Scot as Prime Minister (or, as recent experience has shown, tolerate one in the office).

Dr John Carmody | 07 November 2014  

Brian, you have written beautifully and persuasively, as usual, on the essential kernel of the issue which is the false state of hope generated by desperate politicians. The quiet change of heart of the British political leaders and the steadfast reneging on pre-election promises by the Australian leaders bear too many similarities to be ignored. In each situation, cases were made by both sides and each had sufficient merit to challenge voter thinking. This is what a democratic system of election is supposed to be about. There was no need for the added layers of 'persuasion' which have been shown to have been completely artificial, because as soon as the votes were held, in both cases, the 'persuasive' inducements were dropped or gainsaid. People in Scotland and Australia have a legitimate right to feel that they have been duped by duplicitous game players wanting to achieve their own ends at all costs. Thankyou for writing so clearly.

Sharan Kraemer | 07 November 2014  

I noticed that David Cameron recently fought to stop Britain being forced to pay an extra £1.7 billion (AU$3.12 billion) to the European Union due to the success of the British economy. There were threats of the UK exiting the EU. I compare this to Western Australia losing $3.7 billion EVERY YEAR to the "horizontal fiscal equalisation" of the Federal GST distribution system. Should Western Australia reconsider their 1933 attempt at Secession? Perhaps the opinion of the Privy Council has changed.

Bob GROVES | 07 November 2014  

Similar Articles

An ode to thunder

  • Rory Harris
  • 28 October 2014

you rattled the night around kitchen tables, water glasses filled with new wine healing history, roses on your cheeks & thunder in your heart


Kabul love story

  • Tim Kroenert
  • 30 October 2014

Orphan Abdul loves Fatemeh, but her father is demanding a prohibitive dowry for her hand. The financial wrangling between Abdul's guardian Mahboba and Fatemah's father Nik, and all this implies about the ways in which young women's futures can be sold and traded as part of an archaic cultural norm, seems crass and is more than a little disturbing to witness.