FIRST Minister Alex Salmond has been making all the running so far in the debate on Scotland’s future. He has defined the contest, set the pace and shows every confidence of winning the prize.
He could even be said to have been backing both the potential winners – not just the SNP’s lifelong aim of independence but also the fall-back plan of “Devo Max”.
The opposition parties, in contrast, have been left looking defensive, negative and confused.
But Labour and the Liberal Democrats, at least, have the chance to try to change that this weekend. Both parties are holding their conferences – Labour in Dundee and the Lib Dems in Inverness – which gives them a platform to set out a positive message on the constitution for the Scottish public. Will Labour’s Johann Lamont and the Lib Dems’ Willie Rennie rise to the challenge?
Up until now, few opposition politicians have moved beyond demanding voters say No to independence. They seem unwilling even to allow other options to be debated at this stage, insisting there must be a single question referendum which they hope will kill off the SNP’s ambitions.
But with Mr Salmond announcing autumn 2014 as his preferred date for the referendum, a growing number in the opposition parties feel they will have to spell out what changes they would like to see in devolution.
One senior Labour figure says: “I don’t see how we can sit around for two and a half years just saying no and refusing to discuss anything else.” Another says Ms Lamont must use her conference address on Saturday to move the debate on: “Johann has the chance to say something significant.”
During his visit to Edinburgh last month Prime Minister David Cameron announced there could be more powers on offer from the UK Government if Scots rejected independence – but then refused to say what they would be – which only succeeded in undermining Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson’s insistence that the extra measures in the Scotland Bill were “a line in the sand” and resurrecting the ghost of former Tory grandee Alec Douglas Home and his 1979 appeal to Scots to reject devolution on the promise of something better at a later stage.
The Lib Dems – whose long-standing belief in stronger powers has been held in check by their coalition with the Tories at Westminster – have at least set up a commission under former UK leader Sir Menzies Campbell to draw up detailed proposals.
But that report is not due until the autumn and delegates in Inverness will be looking to Mr Rennie to send some kind of signal on the party’s commitment to further devolution.
None of the opposition parties have been willing to sign up to the “Devo Max” compromise touted by Mr Salmond – where Holyrood would be responsible for everything except foreign affairs and defence and would set and collect all taxes in Scotland, sending an agreed sum to Westminster.
But another option now beginning to emerge is the “Devo Plus” plan unveiled this week with the backing of individual MSPs in the Lib Dem, Labour and Tory parties and the think tank Reform Scotland. Devo Plus would mean the Scottish Parliament raising the money it spends through income tax, corporation tax and some other taxes, while Westminster retained control of VAT and National Insurance to pay for its spending in Scotland.
It’s not as close to independence as the Devo Max idea and its supporters hope it is something which the opposition parties will coalesce around.
Former Chancellor and Edinburgh South West MP Alistair Darling had already backed Scotland having more tax powers, specifically income tax. The Lib Dems’ Campbell commission is almost certain to back such a transfer of powers. And Scottish Government sources suggest Mr Salmond would settle for a Devo Plus option on the ballot paper if it seems to have support.
The package has yet to be rigorously examined and may well prove to have serious flaws. But if this is to be the way forward, the Labour and Lib Dem leaderships need to send that signal sooner rather than later.
Autumn 2014 may seem a long way off, but if they are going to halt Mr Salmond in his tracks the opposition parties have no time to lose.
DEVO Plus may be the new idea that opponents of independence are being invited to rally round.
But if Alex Salmond decides he wants to use it as a compromise option to offer to voters in the referendum, there could be a problem – its advocates don’t want it on the ballot paper.
Jeremy Purvis, the former Liberal Democrat MSP who is leading the Devo Plus group, sees no need for a referendum on more powers and insists there must be a single Yes/No question on indepe-ndence.
Having floated the idea of holding a second referendum on devolution, supporters of more powers now seem to be moving towards the idea that extending devolution does not really need a fresh vote since the principle of a parliament with tax powers was approved in the 1997 devolution referendum.
Indeed, in a radio interview, Mr Purvis came close to claiming that a ‘No’ vote on independence would equal a ‘Yes’ vote to Devo Plus.
But voters may wonder why they should not be given the chance to vote on all the options on offer.