Cameron’s Conundrum: Rocket Scientists Wanted

Following David Cameron’s speech in Edinburgh on 16th February, the billboard outside my local newsagent read: ‘Vote no, and get more powers’. 

That will clearly cut no ice with those who already support independence. But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that Cameron’s strategy is designed to appeal to that sizeable chunk of Scottish opinion that believes in far more powers for the Scottish Parliament, but hasn’t yet decided whether to go the whole hog and vote for outright independence. Nor do you have to a psephologist to realize that it is through the votes of this portion of the electorate that the referendum will be won or lost. But they are unlikely to be beguiled by the Prime Minister’s offer of greater powers. And in making the suggestion, he may well have weakened his case, rather than strengthening it.  

Indeed, if the letters page of The Scotsman – not normally regarded as a hotbed of Scottish nationalism – on the following days is anything to go by, the reaction of many Scots has been one of extreme cynicism. As a number of commentators were quick to point out, the then Tory leader Edward Heath promised a degree of devolution before the 1970 General Election, but failed to do anything once in power. And more recently, before the 1979 referendum, Alec Douglas-Home told Scots that they should vote against the devolution proposals proposed by the then Labour Government, because an incoming Tory administration would bring forward something better: Margaret Thatcher and John Major had eighteen years in which to fulfil that promise, but didn’t quite get round to it. Many Scots voters who aren’t SNP members thus see Tories of having ‘form’ for failing to deliver on their promises on this issue.

Now it may be the case that neither Heath nor Douglas-Home was being deliberately mendacious; and some folk are prepared to believe that David Cameron is an honourable guy, who is sincere in what he says. However, when they look at what he did say, supporters of ‘Devo-max’ may well have some further doubts.  The relevant bit of his speech[1] reads as follows:

“And let me say something else about devolution.  This does not 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 does mean considering what further powers could be devolved.”

So he didn’t actually promise any further powers for Scotland, in the event of a ‘no’ vote. He simply said that he was ‘open to looking at’ and ‘considering’ further powers. Even if we accept that David Cameron is genuinely open-minded on this issue now, there would be nothing to stop him considering the question, and in all sincerity, concluding that no further powers should be transferred to Scotland. Or he might offer some sort of symbolic gesture –say, letting Holyrood decide what tartan should be worn by the Royal Regiment of Scotland –but give nothing substantive, like the power to set Corporation Tax.

However, even if he did decide that there should be a substantial transfer of power to Holyrood, would he actually be able to deliver it? Leaving aside the small matter of whether he would be in office (as the next UK General Election is now only three years away, which would give little or no time for the necessary legislation after the referendum, whenever it is held)  would he be able to deliver his own supporters? That isn’t at all clear: since his speech, a number of Scottish Tory grandees, such as Michael Forsyth and Malcolm Rifkind, have publically opposed greater transfer of powers, while Tory leader at Holyrood, Ruth Davidson, was elected on a platform of ‘The Scotland Bill and no further’. And since the Prime Minister said he did not want to dictate to Scots what they should do, that presumably includes Scots in his own party.

In summary, therefore, most supporters of ‘Devo-max’ are unlikely to be swayed by David Cameron’s promise of more powers: first, because a promise to ‘think about it’ doesn’t add up to much of a promise in the first place; and second, because Cameron is simply in no position to guarantee he could deliver anything to Scotland.  

This gives the Prime Minister a bit of a conundrum.  Leave the promise vague – as it is now – and it lacks any real credibility. But spell out what further powers he’s actually talking about, and if they don’t amount to much, that won’t persuade ‘Devo-max’ supporters to vote against independence. Or, if what’s on offer really does look substantial, that will alienate some in his own party, and his ability to deliver will be in further doubt.

Either way, It also begs the question: if it’s right for Holyrood to have these powers in the event of a ‘no’ vote, why isn’t it right to transfer these powers now? And if extra powers are to be on offer, why not include a question about them on the ballot paper, as many in civic Scotland are calling for. The tricky bit for the Prime Minister will be to come up with plausible and coherent answers to these questions that look based on principle, rather than – perish the thought – being simply a case of crude political calculation. Now that’s a conundrum that would test the ingenuity of the rocket scientists.

 [1] http://www.number10.gov.uk/news/transcript-pm-scotland-speech/

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