Alex Massie

David Cameron Opens the Door to Devo-Max

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At this moment, I dare say industrious hacks are searching for politicians to condemn David Cameron for "selling the jerseys" on the question of further powers for the Scottish parliament after an independence referendum (assuming that Alex Salmond is defeated). Isn't the Prime Minister in danger of conceding what Salmond really wants? Well, maybe. But what if he is? Perhaps Mr Cameron is less beholden to out-of-date Unionist shibboleths than you might think. Or, of course, perhaps he knows not of what he speaks.

His speech in Edinburgh today is not, in fact, a bad one. It is better than his article in today's Scotsman. In fact, it was One Nation Dave in excelsis. This is, in policy terms, the key passage:

And let me say something else about devolution.

That doesn’t 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 means considering what further powers could be devolved.

But that must be a question for after the referendum, when Scotland has made its choice about the fundamental question of independence.

Since these "further powers" must be in addition to those proposed by the present Scotland Bill, Mr Cameron appears to be opening the door to some form, albeit as yet undefined, of devo-max. This is an encouraging development even though, naturally, more detail will be needed.

If this is a real step towards some brand of fiscal autonomy for Scotland (with all the consequences that brings for other parts of the present constitutional settlement) then the Prime Minister is edging towards offering what might be termed "a silent second question" for the independence referendum: Do you want independence or not? If not then how about a dose of devo-max once you've said no to Eck?

Cameron offers a hint of Real Home Rule incentive but, welcome as this may be, one cannot escape the thought that a) it's not a concrete proposal yet and b) Cameron may not be in any position to offer this anyway, far less guarantee it. So how much weight should be attached to this opening? And what if "considering" further powers is just a new way of "taking stock" that produces a couple of symblic but comparatively trivial changes or concessions?

The rest of the Prime Minister's speech is fine as far as it goes but this openess to further devolution is the only properly newsworthy part of it. But is it real and what additional powers does the Prime Minister have in mind? At some point he will need to say what they might be, otherwise he's asking to be trusted because, dash it, he's a pretty straight kind of guy. Which he may very well be but that won't be quite enough to satisfy voters' reasonable curiosity.

So there we have it: an unofficial, silent second question or, if you prefer, a reframing of the debate between independence and Real Home Rule. That might be scored a win for the SNP but it is also an opportunity for a more confident Unionism that's happy, on fiscal autonomy at least, to say Yes instead of No.