EDINBURGH, Scotland — Last week, British Prime Minister David Cameron came to Scotland with an offer.
Deliver a ‘No’ vote in the independence referendum, currently slated for late 2014, and the Westminster government would consider handing new powers to the Edinburgh Parliament.
The move was Cameron’s latest attempt to wrest the initiative over the referendum, which he would like to see held sooner and be limited to a simple yes-or-no question.
Cameron hopes the concession will assuage a Scottish public that appears hungry for more autonomy yet daunted by the prospect of full independence.
It could also halt the growing momentum of the Scottish National Party (SNP), led by Alex Salmond, Scotland’s charismatic First Minister.
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The question of Scottish independence, which rose again when the nationalist party came to power in 2007, is proving to be as a much a battle of identity and personality as a contest of ideas and policies.
Salmond believes Scottish independence is a foregone conclusion.
“The bird has flown, and cannot now be returned to its cage,” he said. “I believe this journey represents the aspirations and the ambitions of the people of Scotland.”
A confident and experienced leader with high personal-approval ratings, Salmond’s positive vision of Scotland as an energy-rich “beacon of progressive values” has struck a chord with voters.
Yet nine months after the SNP won an unprecedented majority in Scotland’s parliament, support for full independence continues to hover below the 40 percent mark. Given a straight “yes or no” question, around 50 percent would vote “no.”
Polling consistently shows there is more than half of voters support a third option, which would hand more powers to the Scottish government but stop short of independence.
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Commonly referred to as “devo max” — short for “maximum devolution” — and yet to be formally defined, the third option would give Scotland almost complete control of its economy, while keeping it within a federal structure in which it would share defense, foreign policy and welfare with London.
A broad coalition of civic groups has launched a campaign to include devo max in the vote, a move Salmond has welcomed.
With the third option on the ballot, he can publicly push for full independence, but settle for devo max, a result he could also present as a win.
Meanwhile, the British government is working to keep the devo max option off the table.
Its pitch: uncertainty over Scotland’s future is damaging. Better to answer the simple question of independence quickly and negotiate the details later.
In a set-piece speech against a backdrop of the famous Edinburgh Castle, Cameron passionately defended the union, batting away suggestions that his Conservative party would benefit politically from separation with Scotland, a country that provides much support for the rival Labour party.
“The union helps to make Scotland stronger, safer, richer and fairer,” he told an audience of journalists and business leaders.
Invoking the union’s shared history, he conceded that Scotland “could govern itself,” before adding: “We do it so much better together.”
But Cameron’s gamble misunderstands the extent to which Scots voters resent even the impression of interference in a process over which they claim sole ownership.
For many Scots, Cameron’s mandate is negligible, and critics claim his meddling has driven more voters in to the hands of Salmond’s SNP.
A former pupil of the exclusive Eton school with a background in public relations, many Scots see Cameron as typical of a strand of English conservatism that is deeply unpopular north of the border.
In a nod to his party’s unpopularity north of the border, his speech even referenced a recent joke that there are more giant pandas than Conservative parliamentarians in Scotland.
For many Scots, Cameron’s offer brings back memories of the 1979 referendum on the establishment of a Scottish Assembly. If they voted “no,” Conservative Foreign Minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home promised “something better.”
The “no” vote won by a slim margin, but Scotland got only two decades of constitutional stasis in return.
Salmond, at least, seems confident Scots will remember their history. “I don’t think Scotland will be fooled twice,” he said recently.