British prime minister David Cameron can be excused for being nervous as Scotland prepares to vote. He hosted a book party this week for a novel about an assassination of a fictional prime minister. “I have to say that after the events I’ve been facing over the past few days, assassination would be a welcome release,” he quipped during the party.
His nerves are understandable. Should he lose the independence vote, he will be infamously known as “the man who lost Scotland,” and my NRO colleague Andrew Stuttaford thinks he would be forced to leave as prime minister before the date of Britain’s next scheduled election in May of next year.
The push to dump Cameron by his fellow Tories would come because independence would have resulted largely owing to his blunders. He refused to accept Scottish National party leader Alex Salmond’s request that a third ballot option offering Scotland more local control be part of the referendum. Back when the vote was negotiated in 2012, he insisted — buoyed by polls showing independence support at about 35 percent — on a single “yes” or “no” ballot question that would force Scottish voters to make a clear choice. He completely misjudged the power of Scottish nationalism once the issue of independence was debated. He also foolishly gave in to Salmond’s demand that 16- and 17-year-olds vote on independence. The 2.5 percent of eligible voters in that age group have been raised on endless replays of Braveheart, Mel Gibson’s stirring portrayal of Scottish leader William Wallace, and are overwhelmingly pro-independence. If the vote is close and union loses, Cameron will have given away the victory.
Even supporters of continued association with the United Kingdom agree on Cameron’s failings. Publisher Steve Forbes, whose family came from Scotland, wrote an impassioned plea for union this week but conceded that “Cameron’s Government has handled the referendum issue terribly”: “Offering up the promise of more local powers after recent polls turned against maintaining the Union has the whiff of panic. Cameron and others never made a full-throated case for Union.”
There are completely bizarre elements to the Scottish vote that Cameron either ignored or passively accepted. About 800,000 Scots live in Britain, either temporarily or permanently. But they won’t have a vote, even though they have the best knowledge of the advantages of a United Kingdom. Another 200,000 Scots who live in other countries will also have no right to a ballot paper, even though if Scotland becomes independent they will automatically become citizens of the new country. All in all, one out of five Scots live in other countries but will have no voting privileges.
But at the same time, citizens of other European Union countries and citizens of Commonwealth nations will have the right to vote in the referendum, even if they are resident in Scotland only as temporary students.
James Wallace, a Scottish lawyer based in London for the last two years, is angry he won’t be eligible to vote. “I spent my entire life in Scotland,” he told the Wall Street Journal. ”I happened to move south for a couple of years, and I don’t actually get a say in the most important vote I’ll ever have in my life.”
A couple of Scottish expatriates I spoke with believe the voting-eligibility rules were insisted on by the pro-independence forces because they knew that the “Scots Abroad” vote wouldn’t be friendly to them. ICM Research, a major pollster, has just released a survey that found that of those Scots living in England or Wales, a full 59 percent opposed independence and only 28 percent favored the idea. Compare that with the nearly even split polls show among Scots eligible to vote.
Prime Minister Cameron insists he will remain in office even if Scotland votes for independence. He told a rally in Hampshire on Wednesday: “My name is not on the ballot paper. What’s on the ballot paper is ‘does Scotland want to stay in the United Kingdom, or does Scotland want to separate itself from the United Kingdom?’ That’s the only question that will be decided on Thursday night.”
Cameron might say that, but to paraphrase the British version of the TV drama House of Cards, his fellow Tory parliamentarians will have their own comment on that. If Scotland goes solo, many of them are more than ready to rest the blame on David Cameron’s shoulders.
— John Fund is national-affairs correspondent for NRO.