Alex Massie

David Cameron has given Alex Salmond an opportunity to play the statesman

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Shockingly, it is possible some of you did not see my appearance on BBC News this afternoon. Thanks to the wonders of Youtube and the baffling enthusiasm some people have for clipping and sharing these things, you can catch up with it now.

As is always the case, I forgot half the things I wanted to say. Jon Sopel asked if it was really plausible for David Cameron to "do nothing". Well, of course it is. Indeed when you cannot offer anything useful it is best to offer nothing at all. The time - as a few of us argued back then - for Conservatives to back a referendum came and went in the last parliament. The Tories could have (nay, should have) supported Alex Salmond's referendum bill then. Their tardy conversion to the cause is, rather too evidently, a matter of political expediency and, equally plainly, an effort to trap Salmond. This is a foolish approach.

Were I Salmond, I would welcome Mr Cameron's overdue appreciation that a referendum is no bad thing and then carry merrily along my way to hold a vote, of whatever legal status, at a moment of my choosing. I would dare London to offer legal challenges and any other obstacles they consider necessary or useful and I would trust that the counting of the votes will change the political, though perhaps not the legal, "reality". Which means I'd probably offer a two question referendum too. 

Of course, were I David Cameron I'd accept that Salmond, bugger it, has the ball and the right to set the conditions for the game. This may be inconvenient or sub-optimal but there it is. And then I would ask just this: do you really wish to make foreigners of your English friends and relatives? I would trust the people to make their own minds up and I would do little to get in the way of that.

I certainly would not be peddling tripe that "economic uncertainty" means the referendum must be held as soon as possible. If anything is certain, economic uncertainty is certain and will and always must be the case. So what? Besides, we can remember how exactly this argument was made before Home Rule and, lo, the darkest prophecies of doom did not come to pass. Perhaps it would be different this time but I cannot see how you win - or win with class at any rate - by suggesting the sky must fall. It probably won't, you know?

Finally, Salmond could, perhaps even should, use this as a moment to tweak Cameron, disguised as generosity. I'd invite him to Edinburgh for a chat at Bute House, statesman to statesman, and see how they can give the appearance of working together. I'd do so because doing so elevates Salmond while making Cameron appear the supplicant. So were I Cameron I'd be wary of this. Then again, were I Cameron I wouldn't have done what he's done today. Little good can come of it so it would be best had he kept quiet.