DAVID Cameron has played into Alex Salmond’s hands by promising more Holyrood powers if Scotland votes against independence in the forthcoming referendum, former Conservative Scottish secretary Lord Forsyth has warned.
In a strongly worded attack on the Prime Minister, the Tory grandee told The Scotsman that Mr Cameron risked allowing the SNP leader to escape setting out what independence would mean during the run-up to the autumn 2014 poll.
Lord Forsyth also issued a stark warning to the Prime Minister that his pledge for more powers had “lit the touch paper” for supporters of devo-max – an option that would see all economic powers transferred to Holyrood.
However, senior Tory MSP Murdo Fraser said the peer, who served in the governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major, was backing a “tired old tactic of simply saying no to every proposed new reform”.
When Mr Cameron came to Scotland last week, he offered a deal that would see the ballot restricted to a single question on independence in return for a promise of more powers after a vote in favour of the Union. The Prime Minister has declined to say how much power he is prepared to transfer to Edinburgh, arguing that the independence question has to be answered before such details are sorted out.
But Lord Forsyth suggested that Mr Cameron’s intervention had undermined the new Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, who was elected on a platform that “a line in the sand” should be drawn on constitutional change beyond the Scotland Bill currently going through Westminster.
He said: “We have just elected a leader in Scotland, who I supported and who stood on a devolution platform on this line and she won convincingly on that platform.”
Lord Forsyth went on to warn that Mr Cameron’s approach had allowed the debate to shift from independence to devo-max, which would see Westminster retaining power only over defence and foreign affairs.
“If this is a tactic, it is a tactic that plays into Alex’s hands, because the very last thing he wants is people actually talking about what independence would mean,” he said.
“What David Cameron has done, he has lit the touch paper for those who are arguing about devo-max – whether that was an intentional tactic or not.”
However, Mr Fraser, the former Scottish Conservative deputy leader, insisted the Prime Minister had “strengthened” the position of the anti-independence campaign by offering an alternative to a split with the UK.
He said: “David Cameron in his speech last week demonstrated that he was in tune with mainstream Scottish thinking in relation to the constitution in that the Prime Minister wants Scotland to remain part of the UK, but also look for greater powers for Holyrood.
“In accepting this basic point he is arguing that there can be further devolution beyond that currently proposed.
“David Cameron has strengthened the position of the pro-Union campaign because those who are sympathetic to more powers for the Scottish Parliament are more likely to vote no to independence if there is further devolution on offer. Thinking unionists will warmly welcome the Prime Minister’s new approach, which is more likely to deliver a clear majority in support of Scotland’s place in the UK rather than the tired old tactic of simply saying no to every proposed new reform.”
Mr Cameron’s promise to examine giving more powers to Holyrood after the referendum led the First Minister to demand what he was prepared to hand over. A spokesman for Mr Salmond yesterday called on the Prime Minister to “spell out exactly what is on offer”.
He said: “We are detailing the case for independence through our consultation, and are very confident the people will vote Yes to that positive prospectus – especially if the only alternative is vague promises of jam tomorrow and obfuscation from David Cameron’s Tories and the rest of the anti-independence parties.”
Meanwhile, Lord Forsyth heavily criticised Labour’s role in the anti-independence campaign, as he warned the party that under devo-max, the reduction in its Scottish MPs would empower the Tories south of the Border and result in it ceasing to have realistic ambitions to be a future UK government.
He said: “I just think London has been asleep on this, in particular Labour. This is a life or death issue for them and they don’t really give the impression of having a grasp of this.
“One of the things that David Cameron said – and I was proud of him for doing so – was that it wasn’t in his party’s interests to argue against this. We are arguing the case for the Union when it could be argued that it is against our party’s interest.
“There are not a few Tory MPs who have been saying ‘what’s all this about’. Labour really needs to get its act together on this.”
Lord Forsyth has tabled an amendment to the Scotland Bill, the UK government legislation currently going through the Lords that will devolve more power to Scotland. The amendment demands a “non-partisan” green paper outlining the effect that Scottish independence has on their areas within nine months of the referendum.
Former Labour First Minister Henry McLeish, a supporter of devo-max, said Lord Forsyth’s comments would bolster Mr Salmond’s campaign ahead of the referendum.
He said: “These are comments from someone who doesn’t understand Scotland and who has been detached for some time. They reflect a party that has little foothold in Scotland.
“Lord Forsyth would be happy to see a fight between unionism and independence, but most Scots want something different. The nightmare scenario is that the Tory intervention strengthens the case for Alex Salmond and weakens that for the Union. That’s the risk they run with irresponsible interventions.”
Meanwhile, former chancellor Alistair Darling and Lib Dem Scottish Secretary Michael Moore yesterday demanded a single referendum question to deliver a “decisive outcome” on independence.
Mr Darling said the SNP wanted “to muddy the waters” by having an extra option on greater powers for Holyrood in the referendum.
He said: “We need to decide whether we are staying in the UK or leaving. Once AVID Cameron has played into Alex Salmond’s hands by promising more Holyrood powers if Scotland votes against independence in the forthcoming referendum, former Conservative Scottish secretary Lord Forsyth has warned.that’s been answered than we can decide what the consequences are.”
Mr Moore warned that a referendum with a “single question is fundamental to getting a decisive outcome”.
Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie has also called on opposition parties to contribute to his party’s home rule commission, chaired by Sir Menzies Campbell – an initiative launched to look at greater powers for Holyrood.
He said: “I want to make sure that our home rule proposals include contributions from for many sections of society.”