David Cameron has said he would consider further powers for Scotland, but only after a referendum.
David Cameron made his boldest move yet in the campaign to stop Scotland voting for independence by offering the country more freedom from Westminster if it votes no in the coming referendum.
Speaking to business leaders in the capital, Edinburgh, the prime minister said the referendum did not have to be “the end of the road” for devolution. After that “I am open to looking at how the devolved settlement can be improved further”, he said. “And, yes, that means considering what further powers could be devolved.”
However, in a move that immediately provoked an angry reaction from Scotland’s pro-independence first minister, Alex Salmond, Cameron repeatedly ruled out discussing what powers could be further devolved to Edinburgh before the vote.
“That must be a question for after the referendum, when Scotland has made its choice about the fundamental question of independence,” Cameron said.
The surprise offer, described by one member of the audience as having an air of desperation, appeared to form part of a two-prong strategy.
The prime minister first outlined a series of veiled threats about the problems raised by Scotland leaving the United Kingdom, including the potential loss of a seat on the UN security council, UK armed forces, and the pound. He also added two new ones to those he had raised in a speech on Wednesday night: the loss of the UK security services and difficulty of combating terrorism alone.
Having raised these concerns, he made the offer of more devolved freedom in the UK, an idea similar to the concept of “devo max” which Salmond wants offered as a second option in the referendum. Under this watered-down version of independence, Scotland would remain part of the UK, with a single currency and defence force, but have control over domestic policy and the economy.
After the speech, Salmond told BBC News: “If the prime minister has an offer to make to the people of Scotland then he should make it now. He should spell it out now so we can have a clear decision on the alternative futures for Scotland … [he] is on very, very shaky ground if he believes people in Scotland will be fooled again,” the first minister added, in a reference to former Tory prime minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home’s promises to offer Scots a better devolution bill if they voted no in the 1979 referendum.
Although Cameron repeatedly avoided speculating on what further powers could be devolved, he suggested to questioners that he was unwilling to go as far as Salmond’s “devo max” solution would suggest, defending the national welfare state as fairer and pointing out the importance of “fiscal union” inside a single currency.
He also repeated the passionate personal language of the previous evening, describing the decision as one of “head, heart and soul”, and saying he was “ready for the fight for our country’s life”.
Following the speech, Cameron was due to meet Salmond in private to discuss the referendum. Areas where the two sides disagree include Salmond’s demand to wait two years for the referendum, his choice of questions that would be put to voters, and his desire to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote.
Cameron repeated his insistence there should be only one question on the ballot, saying a second question would be “muddling”.
He also stressed he still wanted the vote held as soon as possible, “so people can get on with their lives”.
The prime minister acknowledged suggestions that his role in any “no” to independence campaign might anger Scots into voting for it, suggesting leading Labour names such as Alistair Darling, John Reid and Gordon Brown could front such an effort.
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