Not many politicians would conjure up the spectre of Alec Douglas-Home to scare the
Prime Minister, but that is exactly what Alex Salmond did today — to some effect.
The Scottish First Minister was responding to David Cameron’s ‘jam tomorrow’ offer to the Scottish people. ‘Vote “no” in the independence referendum,’ Mr
Cameron effectively told Scots today in his latest attempt to make some progress in the independence debate, ‘And I’ll see that you get major new powers for the Scottish
It was one part bribery, one part political strategy and Mr Salmond was on to it quicker than the average Scot can order a haggis supper.
‘We’ve been here before in Scottish politics when famously Sir Alec Douglas Home in the 1979 referendum told the people of Scotland … to vote “no” for a better
deal,’ Mr Salmond said. Then he added: ‘Scotland actually voted “yes” but what happened then was 17 -18 years of no deal at all from a Conservative Government at
Westminster. Now, I don’t think there would be any appetite whatever for Scotland to be presented with a false prospectus again.’
So, in a sense, Mr Salmond has decided to call Mr Cameron’s bluff. As far as the First Minister is concerned, the Prime Minister made the offer, he volunteered more powers for the Scottish
Parliament today so Mr Salmond is within his rights to ask (as he did tonight) ‘where’s the beef?’ For his part, the Prime Minister has refused to say.
But the real question is where this leaves the battle over independence. To some, the Prime Minister’s move was a mistake. In offering yet more powers for Holyrood (at a time when the
greater-devolution Scotland Bill is still progressing through Westminster) critics argue that Mr Cameron has ceded yet more ground to the Nationalists, ground that they didn’t have to
relinquish at this stage. However, to others, the Prime Minister’s offer was smart because it was a way of trying to take ‘devo max’ off the agenda ahead of the referendum,
something the unionists are desperate to do.
Whichever way it turns out, though, the move was undoubtedly a risky one. As Mr Salmond’s aides were quick to point out this evening, Mr Cameron has injected a new dynamic into the debate, a
dynamic which allows them to put the UK Government on the spot.
Mr Cameron has effectively agreed to new powers and he will be pressed from now until the day of the referendum to explain what those powers are going to be. This issue may not seem all that
important right now but it will next year when the SNP publishes its white paper on independence, the document which will set out exactly what Mr Salmond believes an independent Scotland will look
like. At that stage, if Mr Cameron has not elaborated on his vague promise to hand over more powers, the argument will look distinctly one-sided and Mr Salmond will have the edge once again.
This is a plan which could work but only if, at some stage, Mr Cameron and his advisers put some flesh on it. Only when they come up with a coherent positive vision of Scotland with new powers and
a new relationship with Westminster will they be able to start to counter the Nationalist arguments. And, so far as the Unionist camp is concerned, the sooner this happens, the better.