Culross, old and newish
Photograph by Islay McLeod
David Cameron has
raised the level of
the intellectual debate
I am no fan of David Cameron. On the central issue of the British economy and the deficit I agree with those who argue that the Cameron/Osborne austerity plan has failed. The budget cuts are, as Ed Balls has maintained all along, too deep and too fast. It's time for Plan B. However, I have to say I found the prime minister's performance on his recent visit to Scotland not unimpressive. The debate over the referendum issue has at last been raised to something nearer the intellectual level which its importance demands.
The knock-on effects were immediately clear. On Newsnight Scotland, Joyce McMillan and the peerless Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University were somewhat grudgingly prepared to admit that Mr Cameron had done well. The jokes were timely, and the tone was measured; the argument was lucid and well-presented; there was no scare-mongering and there were no slip-ups. Even the personal, emotional case on behalf of maintaining the union was hinted at.
Joyce McMillan was right to contrast this polished performance with the abysmal shortcomings of the leaders of the Scottish unionist parties. But what struck me most about the Newsnight discussion itself was the altogether more adult level at which it was pitched. The real issues of the referendum were at last under intelligent and serious discussion. Of course there will be those who say that has nothing to do with the prime minister's intervention. I'm not so sure.
So in terms of the disputed issues, where was the Cameron contribution most significant? Clearly over the issue of whether there should be one or two questions on the referendum ballot-paper. The case for a single in/out question was made simply and forcefully. The central question is about independence: does Scotland wish to remain in or withdraw from the United Kingdom? That and that alone is what the referendum should decide. But it was here that the prime minister made his new and most provocative contribution. If the Scottish people vote in favour of the union, then according to Cameron, the whole issue of further devolution would be immediately up for discussion. Mr Cameron insists he is a friend of devolution, supports it, and thinks it could be made to work better. 'Devo-max', he suggests, would remain on the constitutional agenda.
The Scottish people, it seems to me, have only the vaguest of ideas of what a vote for independence, and the disentangling of Scotland from England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, would really involve.
It seems to me at least that the prime minister has played a skilful game here. For once he has wrong-footed Scotland's first minister. Mr Salmond's response was rather weak. The prime minister, he suggests, has to tell us what exactly devo-max would mean. But Mr Salmond and his party have a problem here. They are in favour of independence and so are against devo-max. But failing independence, they are in favour of devo-max – which is why, whatever it is, they want it on the ballot-paper. And in any event how explicit have the first minister and the SNP been about what exactly independence itself means? The Scottish people, it seems to me, have only the vaguest of ideas of what a vote for independence, and the disentangling of Scotland from England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, would really involve.
Having had time to digest David Cameron's intervention, commentators sympathetic to the SNP position have come up with a response based on events in the 1970s. Writing in the Guardian, for example, Lesley Riddoch complained that Cameron had not 'promised' increased tax-raising powers for the Scottish parliament in the event of a 'no' to independence. And she goes on to argue that his plan 'overlooks Scottish history'. What she means is that at the time of the 1979 devolution referendum, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, promised a better devolution bill than the one then on offer. A promise of course on which he did not deliver.
Ms Riddoch ends by apparently agreeing with a blogger who describes the Cameron offer of further but unspecified powers as 'insulting'. That, she writes, 'may be the conclusion of many Scots'. On the other hand it may not. How many Scottish voters today are actively recalling the Douglas-Home promise? I have to admit that, involved as I was in the 1979 debate, it is not exactly something that springs readily to mind. How many Scottish 16 and 17-year-olds, whom the SNP are so anxious to enfranchise, will have even the slightest idea of who Alec Douglas-Home was? The challenge of Mr Cameron's intervention is in no way damaged by this appeal to a forgotten past. It deserves serious attention at least.
Andrew Hook is a former professor of English literature at