David Cameron has hinted that Scotland could be given more powers if Scottish voters reject calls for independence and choose to remain in a political union with England.
Speaking in Edinburgh, the Prime Minister revealed he would be willing to consider giving politicians north of the border more control over their nation’s affairs.
But his refusal to explain what those new powers could be was criticised by First Minister Alex Salmond, who said Scots would not be “fooled” by the offer.
Mr Cameron said: “When the referendum on independence is over, I am open to looking at how the devolved settlement can be improved further.
“And, yes, that does mean 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 or for the United Kingdom.”
Mr Cameron’s offer came only hours before meeting Mr Salmond, the Scottish National Party (SNP) leader, to discuss the staging of the independence referendum.
The First Minister wants the vote to be held in autumn 2014, with the possibility of a second question on the ballot paper which focuses specifically on greater devolved powers.
But the UK Government wants the referendum to take place “sooner rather than later”, with 2013 given as an option.
Defending the Union, which dates from 1707, the Prime Minister said it was his “hope and wish” for Scotland to remain part of the UK.
He acknowledged that Scotland – and England – could prosper as independent states but said he was “convinced” the UK’s best days were to come.
Describing the UK as more than “some sort of deal”, he said: “It’s a precious thing. It’s about our history, our values, our shared identity and our joint place in the world.” He said the United Kingdom stood for common endeavour, concluding: “If anything’s worth fighting for, that surely is – which is why I’m ready to fight for the life of this country.”
After the meeting, Mr Cameron said the talks had been “constructive” but added: “On the issue of independence, separating Scotland, leaving the United Kingdom, I am afraid there wasn’t much progress.”
Mr Salmond called on Mr Cameron to explain his offer, recalling that Scotland had been in a similar situation in the run-up to the devolution referendum of 1979.
On that occasion, the First Minister said, Sir Alec Douglas-Home had promised that a Tory government would introduce a better Scottish Assembly.
“What happened then was 17, 18 years of no deal at all from the Conservative government at Westminster,” Mr Salmond added. “The shadow of Sir Alec Douglas-Home I think is cast very large over this.
“What’s the old saying? ‘Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice shame on me’. Scotland, I don’t believe, will be fooled twice.”
Turning to Mr Cameron’s offer, Mr Salmond said: “Give us the detail, where’s the beef, what is the proposal, what is on the table?”
Scottish Secretary Michael Moore, a Liberal Democrat MP who also took part in the talks, said: “The alternative is not the status quo, it’s actually about deciding what other powers Scotland should have within the United Kingdom.
“We don’t need the outcome of a referendum to determine whether or not we can have the debate about what those powers will be.”
He called on Mr Salmond to provide more detail on what independence would mean.