Straight off the presses……….
Today David Cameron made his Support of the Union speech against the back-drop of Edinburgh Castle – the place where Alex Salmond launched the independence referendum document a fortnight ago.
Clearly symbolism was important– the PM's crew had also examined possible locations in the Scotsman building and New St Andrew's House. Cameron's message seemed to be – I'm humble about being a Tory in Scotland but I personally care about the UK, Scotland could go it alone (with difficulties) but it is possible – other small countries have been successful, I feel positive about the Union, I'd like Alistair Darling, John Reid and Gordon Brown to step up and start doing some heavy lifting to support the case for the Union and if the Scots vote no in the referendum a better (maybe devo-max) deal will be along later.
Has Cameron put the cat amongst the pigeons with his suggestion that more tax-raising powers (devo max) might be considered at Westminster if (and only if) the Scots first vote no in the independence referendum? Well, we've been here before with the 1979 devolution referendum and Alex Douglas Home's wobbly promise of a better devolution Bill later. And what happened to the "think again" pledge on voting reform after the failed AV referendum. Later never comes.
But the speech had humility, acknowledging that Tories are less numerous in Scotland than Pandas.
A strong section of his speech emphasised that the choice was for Scots alone to make and that Scotland was perfectly capable of running its own affairs.
"I'm not going to stand here and say the Scots couldn't make a go of it on their own. Small states operate well. But an independent Scotland would need to confront some big issues. "
He listed the volatility of oil, big movements in the banking system, and the possibility that national independence could leads to greater international dependence.
Then in a clever adaptation of the "I come to praise Caesar not to bury him," argument – having listed all the problems that would face a new Scottish state Cameron concluded, "these challenges are not my point today." Of course Scotland could govern itself. So could England. But we do it so much better together. The union is not a deal -- it's a precious thing.
Cameron praised Scots contribution to the UK – its freedom and inclusiveness, and drive to stand up for freedom and democracy round the globe, creating a welfare system and championing the vulnerable. He argued that the UK is not monoglot and monocultural. The Union he said, has never been about shackling different nations. It's a free partnership often driven by Scots like Bill Gammell and Ian Wood today – and by Liberals like Jo Grimond, and humane radicals like John Smith and Donald Dewar in the past. He said Brits have turned a bunch of offshore islands into a success story and claimed the ties of blood are growing stronger not weaker. More Scots are living in England and vice versa than ever before.
He was on weaker ground with claims that the UK makes all of us stronger, richer and safer. The UK does have a permanent place on the UN Security Council. Scottish pilots did help free Libya. But trying to talk up our policing expertise after some of the recent scandals surrounding the Met – not really. Richer because Scotland is part of a market with no borders? I don't imagine the Irish feel hugely disadvantaged by border issues. Mention of the shared welfare system is also a bit rich as the Lords have chucked out Cameron's proposals and welfare systems are the most visible ways the two countries have diverged.
He talked about aid budgets – and is clearly sincere. "We have the second biggest aid budget in world" – but the world's biggest aid donor by GDP share is tiny, independent Norway.
The section where he talked about the emotional and practical reasons for union was also wobbly.
He said, "I understand why Scots want to express identity and control lives. I want a Scotland where more Scots own their own homes, keep more of their own cash, have business that can innovate and bring down barriers to enterprise" – this is a softened version of the Tory agenda that has been rejected time and again by Scots.
Then he moved on to deliver the "big tease" suggesting the Scotland Bill hasn't had the attention it deserves and can give Scotland the powers it needs, like raising tax revenue for the first time. He observed, "Our union is living free and adaptable. After the referendum we can consider if further powers need to be devolved – but that's a question for after the referendum."
I notice the word "promise" was missing here. Cameron will simply consider more powers for Scotland post referendum. He quoted Burns (again only this time didn't mangle it in Scots) and concluded dramatically, I am ready for the fight for my country's life.
The Times Scottish Editor Magnus Linklater asked "how is it fair to have the uncertainty of your possible devo-max settlement hanging over the constitutional debate for the next two years?" Cameron ducked the question, suggesting further devolution wouldn't be such a huge issue for the whole of the UK and the two years was a timescale of Alex Salmond's choosing – not quite the point. Devo max – where Scotland had different tax rates, tax powers, social security arrangements not to mention control of oil revenue would clearly have a huge impact on the rest of the UK – though if it were structured properly further devolution to Scotland might finally kick start some local control in England too (Simon Hughes argument). But clearly David Cameron hasn't thought any of this through at all. He ducked a similar question from the Guardian asking if devo max powers for Scotland would prompt a rethink for the rest of the UK. Meantime he said he'd tell Alex Salmond it would be absolutely wrong to have a "devo max" question on the ballot paper.
Speaking straight afterwards – and perhaps not having heard the speech, Alex Salmond said, David Cameron's positive tone was a change for the better and he welcomed the Prime Minister's acknowledgement that an independent Scotland is viable. But he questioned Cameron's priorities – a seat on the Security Council is not of immediate importance to someone losing disability allowance, he said. The G7 isn't the politics that matter – politics is about the people not about prestige. And he criticised the "vote no – get devo max later" offer – how can we have an independence debate and vote when David Cameron has another proposal up his sleeve.
But Alex you all do!!! Devo max appears to be the love that dare not speak its name for every party involved in this constitutional debate – so why is the biggest democratic effort we'll see for a generation about everything ELSE?