VOTE NO and get more powers. That was the offer on the table from Prime Minister David Cameron yesterday, as he pledged to reopen the devolution settlement for Scotland if voters rejected independence in the forthcoming referendum.
In a carefully choreographed pitch he hopes will persuade soft Nationalist voters to back him in opposing independence, the Prime Minister made his strongest declaration yet that he was prepared to examine a looser arrangement between Scotland and the rest of the UK, saying he wanted to look at “what further powers could be devolved”.
However, he said those powers could be considered only if and when independence was rejected by voters, saying it was for people in Scotland to decide on that first, before any fresh deal within the UK was examined.
The offer prompted a fresh row with the SNP government in Edinburgh, as Alex Salmond demanded to “see the beef” of Mr Cameron’s claims, after the Prime Minister repeatedly failed to provide specific examples of which powers he thought could be devolved.
The First Minister accused Mr Cameron of failing to spell out what his plans would look like or what they would involve, saying he was now duty bound to make it clear in the months ahead.
But the Prime Minister later told Mr Salmond he would not be doing so, and urged him, in face-to-face talks, to “get on” with holding a referendum – which the SNP wants to put off until 2014. He said that, “for all our sanity”, the debate over whether Scotland should become independent had to be settled speedily.
The frosty tone continued later as, after an hour of talks with the First Minister, Mr Cameron expressed his “frustration” at the slow pace of progress on agreeing the ground rules for a referendum.
And, in an acknowledgement of his lack of political backing in Scotland, he said he hoped to “hear from” Labour foes including Gordon Brown, John Reid and Alistair Darling, saying he would need their support in any campaign against independence.
His offer of more powers came as a surprise, given previous Tory statements on devolution. It follows comments by the party’s Scottish leader Ruth Davidson that she believed a “line in the sand” should be drawn on Holyrood’s powers, once new powers enshrined in the new Scotland Bill were in place.
However, there have been warnings that if the pro-Union camp does not show flexibility on the devolution settlement, it could push voters, particularly Labour supporters, into the hands of the pro-independence camp.
Mr Cameron acknowledged the Conservatives weren’t “currently Scotland’s most influential political movement” and that, therefore, “more than a little humility is called for” when speaking in Scotland.
Despite Tory opposition to the creation of the Scottish Parliament, he said he believed in devolution, as it gave people “a choice and a real say in their own affairs”.
Turning to the future, he said: “That doesn’t have to be the end of the road. When the referendum on independence is over, I am open to looking at how the devolved settlement can be improved further. And, yes, that means considering what further powers could be devolved.”
But he added: “That must be a question for after the referendum, when Scotland has made its choice about the fundamental question of independence; when Scotland has settled this question once and for all – and ended the uncertainty that could damage and hold back Scotland’s prospects and potential.”
Pressed later to name a single additional power he thought should be devolved, Mr Cameron declined to do so. However, in comments that would appear to rule out a system of “fiscal autonomy” running in Scotland with Tory blessing, he said it was “because we have the fiscal union” within the UK that the country was able to work.
He also argued the UK would always need to demonstrate “solidarity” across borders.
He said: “When there are floods in Cornwall, or a factory closure in east Kent, or an economic problem in the west coast of Scotland, we don’t sit around asking, ‘Shall we help’, ‘Is this our responsibility’, ‘Is this part of our package’, as we do in the EU issues. We think this is our country, this is our United Kingdom, we have solidarity, we help each other.”
Under fiscal autonomy, Scotland would take complete control over all taxation, paying the UK government for services it decided to share with the rest of the country.
Mr Salmond insisted last night that Mr Cameron’s new offer needed meat on the bones.
He said: “What I said to the Prime Minister in the discussion is, if that is the case, we now need to know what it is. We need to know the detail – where’s the beef?”
He insisted bodies in civic Scotland considering where they stood should know whether the pro-Union parties might be set to come out in favour of a more-powers option.
“The anti-independence parties now have absolutely incumbent, particularly the government of course to spell that out, to give the detail,” he said.
The First Minister accused Mr Cameron of echoing a Tory claim made in the 1979 devolution referendum campaign by the former prime minister Alec Douglas-Home who said a Conservative administration would propose a better solution. “They can’t expect to do another shimmy as was done to Scotland back in 1979,” Mr Salmond said. “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”
He added: “This is a matter of months, not years, for us to be given the specifics of what is now – to quote the Prime Minister exactly – ‘on the table’.”
The talks, at St Andrew’s House in Edinburgh, showed little signs of agreement on how the referendum should be held. But Mr Salmond said the only “substantive point” of disagreement was whether one or two questions would be asked, claiming two other areas of dispute – whether to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote and the issue of the 2014 date – were close to agreement.
On a second question, he said: “If there’s a strong demand from civic Scotland, from the unions from the voluntary sector, the churches, civic society, looking for something different, for some other option to be tested, politicians at the very least should listen. It’s the only serious issue in terms of process that needs to be settled.”
Mr Cameron did accept there was an obligation on the part of the pro-Union parties to set out their vision of enhanced devolution, according to Mr Salmond.
But Scottish Secretary Michael Moore, who was at the talks, said: “We still have differences of view over the issue of timing, the franchise and whether there are one or two questions.”
He also insisted Scots were still not clear what independence would mean. “We keep seeing a moving feast from the SNP on what that might look like,” he said. “We’ve seen a shift over the currency that the country might adopt; we’ve had very little clarity about how we would do very major things like regulating our banks and financial institutions.
Labour’s Patricia Ferguson said: “It is bizarre Alex Salmond is now asking David Cameron to define a policy he claims not to support but everyone knows he is secretly relying on as a fall back. This just reinforces the case for a simple, straightforward question sooner rather than later.”