So, the big three UK parties have had their conferences, ending in each case with the big set-piece event: the speech from the all-conquering leader. Â Leadership speeches at conferences are big events, setting out the priorities of the respective parties for the coming year. Â Bookies take bets on what will feature (then stop taking them as soon as parts of the speech are leaked). Â If an issue makes it into the speech, chances are that is what you’ll be hearing about from that leader continuously until the following year’s conference. Â If an issue doesn’t make it, then its importance has been relegated, the leader not considering it a priority.
This year, obviously, the economy continues to play a large role in leadership speeches – indeed it was the focus of them. Â How to encourage growth, how to improve the fortunes of the economy, how to secure its recovery. Â All very important indeed – you can’t argue that the economy deserves its position as an issue of top importance to political parties.
What’s interesting – from a Scottish perspective – is that between the three leadership speeches, Scotland was mentioned only THREE times. Â Nick Clegg mentioned us only once, saying we need: “An economy for everyone: In Scotland, Wales, in every part of the United Kingdom.” Â Laudable sentiments I guess. Â David Cameron only mentioned Scotland in the context of our armed forces, and not specifically just ours: “In Afghanistan today, there are men and women fighting for Britain as bravely as any in our history. They come from across our country: England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland.” Â Ed Miliband also mentioned Scotland just the once, but not the country. Â Nope, he was taking a pop at Fred Goodwin in running RBS. Â Three leadership speeches, and Scotland mentioned twice – and then, only to emphasise that the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister recognised that they were parts of the UK.
And what of this Union that each of these leaders have pledged to defend? Â Nothing. Â Sure, each of them mentioned the word union, but it was in relation to Trades Union, and if David Cameron’s pledge is to defend that kind of union, then I think I’ve walked into some kind of parallel universe.
Its funny – the day before his big speech, David Cameron announced on “Scottish night”(?) at the Conservative Party Conference that he had “one core belief” about Scotland – that the Conservatives “were a party of the Union”. Â Yet the following day, those sentiments did not appear anywhere in his set piece speech. Â In an interview with a Scottish political journalist, Ed Miliband said we have a “shared history” and a “shared common bond” with the UK and that “devolution had made the Union stronger”. Â But then he couldn’t remember the name of one of Scottish Labour’s leadership candidates (emphasising just how important that “common bond” between Scotland and the rest of the UK is, since he hadn’t bothered being briefed on it) and also didn’t mention either Scotland or the Union in his speech.
Look, I know party leaders will claim everything is important to them, and their speeches are limited in time, and thus they can’t fit everything they might want to into them. Â But for parties who recognise the threat to the Union posed by the SNP, and who are gearing up to defend that same Union, it seems to me just a little strange that neither merits mention in a 45 minute keynote address to party delegates. Â You can be sure that this slight will not have gone unnoticed by the SNP – and Alex Salmond will likely draw attention to this fact in his own conference speech in a couple of weeks.
The point is – are the UK leaders really serious about their defence of the Union? Â Because the evidence from their conference speeches suggests that defending the Union doesn’t rate highly upon their agenda. Â If they are going to win a referendum on the issue, that’s going to have to change.
This post isn’t supposed to be negative. Â What I’m trying to say is that the debate needs to be happening at the top levels. Â The parties need to engage with the issue of independence – and argue the merits of their case. Â Ignoring the issue won’t make it go away. Â And as much as I’d be happy with the outcome should the pro-Union campaign continue to falter, I’d much rather the argument was won after a positive debate.