Peter Hoskin

Cameron’s balancing act over Scotland

Cameron's balancing act over Scotland
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The Cabinet is meeting about 5 miles away from Downing Street today, at the Olympic Park in Stratford. But its collective mind will be on a patch of land another 270 miles further on still. Yep, Scotland and Scottish independence are the matters at hand today. According to the Beeb, David Cameron and his ministers will discuss their ideas for the referendum, its content and its timing. It's thought that they may allow a referendum that's binding on the UK government – but only so long as it takes place in the next eighteen months, and offers a simple ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ vote on independence.

You can understand Cameron’s thinking on this – and, in fact, he appears to be following the advice of this week's Spectator leader by wresting control of the referendum away from Alex Salmond and, with it, several strategic advantages. How the SNP leader would love to fight for independence around the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn in 2014. How he'd love the consolation prize, between ‘Yes’ and ‘No’, of ‘devo-max’. Yet, judging by today's stories, the PM is determined not to afford Salmond any of these opportunities.

But as understandable as Cameron’s plan is, it is also fraught with risk. Alex has already written the definitive counterargument against the magazine’s leader on his Spectator blog, but it boils down to this: Cameron ought not risk antagonising Scottish voters by lording it over the referendum. If there is anything that Salmond can exploit to his advantage it is the sense – whether true or not – that the referendum is being rigged from London, and for London’s sake.

There is overlap between the two positions; pulling the rug from under Salmond whilst also not inciting sympathy for him and his cause. But I’d be interested to hear which position CoffeeHousers veer more naturally towards. Myself, I agree more with Alex’s argument. Modern political history has been beset by sham referenda that don’t give voters a real say at all. The coalition should avoid travelling down that path itself, and highlight how Salmond is himself trying to manipulate the process.

Besides, for all Salmond’s undoubted political skill, this is a battle that is winnable for the Unionists. The sooner those Unionists decide upon a decent campaign message, and who should deliver it, the more likely that victory will be.