Despite saying a vote against Scottish Independence could be rewarded with extra powers, the Prime Minister’s promises have a hollow ring.
Scotland got about 60 seconds in David Cameron’s speech to the Tory conference, though the message was clear: “We want you to stay”. And to be fair, Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson was given a plum slot to address delegates, just before the Prime Minister.
Some trails of his address to the faithful in Manchester had Mr Cameron reasserting the Conservatives’ commitment to devolution, despite their original opposition, and in an interview to coincide with the speech he spoke again about being “open” to more powers for the Scottish Parliament if next year’s referendum produces a No vote on independence.
The Tories have a commission looking into the issue, as do Labour. Both are expected to report next spring so the parties can make clear where they stand before the big vote. The Liberal Democrats have already set out their ideas about a federal Britain.
But many recall the pledge made by former Tory Prime Minister Lord Home during the 1979 referendum on devolution that if Scotland voted No, a future Conservative government would come up with a better scheme. Of course, Margaret Thatcher led the Tories to victory and devolution was buried.
That memory understandably gives new promises about increased devolution a hollow ring.
Indeed there has to be a big question mark over whether any of the parties are likely to deliver more powers if Scotland rejects independence. It has typically only been when there appeared to be widespread public discontent and/or an electoral threat from the SNP that other parties have been galvanised into action on devolution. What incentive would there be to launch into yet another round of constitutional debate if Scots have just turned down the idea of independence and crushed the Nationalists’ dream?
There are already more powers in the pipeline – including over a portion of income tax – which will come into effect by 2016.
It would only be natural, and up to a point logical, for the non-independence parties to say these should be allowed to bed in before thinking of any further changes.
A No vote, unless it’s very close, will take the pressure off Westminster so far as Scotland is concerned. It is difficult to see why a UK government, of whatever colour, would go out of its way to hand over more powers to Holyrood.
Some supporters of devo-max like to argue that a No vote is not a vote for the status quo but should be seen as an endorsement of strengthened devolution as opposed to independence. They didn’t want devo-max on the ballot paper because they wanted the referendum result to be a clear rejection of separation. But they can’t then assume voters agree with them about the need for more powers.
A devo-max proposal could have been presented to voters as another option alongside independence and the status quo, albeit the details would have been subject to no doubt protracted negotiation with the UK government. But that’s not going to happen.
Instead voters are being asked to trust the politicians to bring forward an expanded version of devolution – a challenging invitation, you might think.
If the polls are to be believed and Scotland is heading for a No vote next September, the chances are MSPs will have to make do with their current powers – and the extra ones in the pipeline – for some considerable time to come.