Cameron plans a clever game of cat and mouse on independence

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A Tory government doesn't guarantee the SNP an easy ride in an independence referendum, writes DAVID TORRANCE

THE full name of the Conservative Party, as many Scottish Tories are fond of reminding historically illiterate journalists, is the Conservative and Unionist Party. That the Unionist portion refers to Ireland rather than Scotland is of no consequence; the point is clear – the Conservatives want to preserve the three-century old union between Scotland and England.

Most Conservatives arriving in Birmingham this weekend for the annual Tory Party conference will hold this unionist truth to be self-evident, yet the rhetoric glosses over an uncomfortable historical fact: when Irish Nationalism reached its peak in the early 1920s it was the Conservatives – as the dominant partner in Lloyd George's coalition government – who bade the Irish Free State farewell, and who fudged the Ulster question by imposing a "home rule" parliament called Stormont.

As the Liberal statesman Sir William Harcourt perceptively observed, "The Tories never yet have taken up a cause which they did not ultimately betray". David Cameron may have been sincere when he said the next Conservative government would "believe in the Union and will never do anything to put it at risk", but he must also realise that preserving it will take more than warm words.

And although Cameron's Conservatives may not ultimately betray Scotland's place in the union they will certainly have to compromise. While political cohabitation within the United Kingdom has been a reality since last May, the dynamic between a Unionist Tory government in London and a Nationalist SNP administration in Edinburgh would strain the union as never before.

By most accounts the SNP almost relishes the prospect of Cameron winning the next general election sometime in 2010. With a referendum on Scottish independence pledged to take place the same year, the party's calculation is that a Conservative government with little mandate north of the border, combined with the collective folk memory of the Thatcher era, will boost SNP support and lead inexorably towards separation from England.

This analysis is, I think, simplistic. Not only will a large chunk of those voting in the 2010 election have no memory of the Thatcher decade, but David Cameron is no Margaret Thatcher and his government would hardly embark on an ideological crusade against "subsidy junkie" Scots. On the contrary, as a primarily tactical politician the Tory leader is acutely aware of how Alex Salmond will seek to depict his "alien" government.

"Whatever the outcome in Scotland of the next General Election," Cameron said earlier this year, "a Conservative government will govern the whole of the United Kingdom, including Scotland, with respect." There have already been hints of how that "respect" would manifest itself, most notably the promise of a deal on the 400 million of council tax cash the Labour government currently refuses to hand over if the SNP legislates for a Local Income Tax.

This nicely-nicely approach by the new prime minister will certainly make any SNP attack appear churlish but, as I have said, will not in itself be enough to "strengthen the Union", as Cameron apparently believes. He will also be under pressure from an extremist fringe of Tory MPs who want to bid Scotland farewell as they did Ireland more than 80 years ago; those for whom the Scots are an electoral liability who should no longer be allowed to compromise majority Tory support in England.

Cameron will certainly resist this, while attempting to placate grumbling backbenchers with rather flimsy proposals for an English Grand Committee to get around the perennial question of West Lothian. The post of Secretary of State for Scotland – which looks likely to go in Gordon Brown's imminent reshuffle – will also be restored to Cabinet to mitigate against inevitable accusations that the Conservatives do not take Scotland seriously.

There are also signs that Cameron will pursue a more positive brand of unionism. The pro-union arguments of old have often been as vague as Nationalist ones are woolly, but a recent speech by the Shadow Scottish Secretary David Mundell revealed a subtle shift in emphasis. "Well, of course Scotland could survive as an independent country," he suggested as an alternative pitch last weekend, "but we believe that her future is better served as part of the Union, and here are the reasons why…"

Those reasons – economic, disproportionate influence and resources – are, admittedly, hardly new, but in politics tone is important, and tone is something Cameron does well. Alex Salmond, however, is not stupid. He, like his counterpart in Downing Street, will be aware of the subtleties of a Conservative/Nationalist cohabitation and will act accordingly.

With no guarantee of a "Yes" vote in an independence referendum, let alone a referendum taking place, the Prime and First Ministers will be compelled to reach a deal.

Having already signed up to the cross-party Calman Commission, Cameron will have no problems endorsing greater fiscal powers for Holyrood, if anything it will remove the sting from the Barnett Formula, much-resented by English Tory MPs. Salmond, too, will lose no sleep over agreeing to additional powers as a necessary step on the road to independence.

This, of course, will not be an end to the constitutional question. But when independence again looks inevitable the Conservatives will not defend it kicking and screaming. Instead Cameron will cast an eye back to the Government of Ireland Act in 1921 and accept a pragmatic solution. "I want to be Prime Minister of the United Kingdom", he declared in May, "all of it, including Scotland." But then Cameron has to say that.

Another Anglo-Scots Tory, Andrew Bonar Law, used to say something similar of Ireland. But when it came to the crunch he inevitably capitulated. "When I say I am in favour of this (Anglo-Irish] Agreement," he told the House in December 1921, "I do not pretend to like it, but I ask myself this: What is the alternative?" Within a few years of becoming prime minister, David Cameron could find himself echoing those sentiments in relation to Scotland.

&#149 David Torrance is a freelance journalist and former aide to the Shadow Scottish Secretary David Mundell.