IT is to David Cameron’s credit that he does not want to be remembered as the Prime Minister who lost a Scottish independence referendum on his watch, even though this would, perversely, provide the Tories with a great electoral advantage at Westminster.
It is also testament to the Prime Minister that his leadership on this issue has finally forced Alex Salmond, Scotland’s First Minister, to reveal his intentions after years of obfuscation on the SNP supremo’s part.
However the fickle state of Scotland’s relationship with the rest of the United Kingdom means statesmanship counts for little north of the border – the challenge now is to settle Westminster and Holyrood’s differences on the timing and mechanics of the referendum before allowing a mature debate to begin on substantive issues like the economy and whether, for example, the Scots will join the euro.
It also requires the Tories, Liberal Democrats and Labour to recognise that the future of the UK has only been put at risk because of a collective failure on their part which has been ruthlessly exploited by Mr Salmond, and illustrated by his desire to go to the polls immediately after Glasgow has hosted the Commonwealth Games in 2014.
That was the conclusion yesterday of Alistair Darling, the former Chancellor, and it will take a man of his calibre to spearhead the anti-independence campaign and convince his fellow Scots why the status quo is in the economic interest of all taxpayers. His argument, that the UK is stronger together and weaker when apart, is a powerful one that should resonate when the tit-for-tat manoeuvrings over the referendum question, and voter eligibility, have been settled.
However, Scotland’s future should also only be settled with proper regard to her future funding – and, in particular, how the outdated Barnett Formula sees each individual in Scotland each receive an extra £1,500 of state funding in comparision to their counterparts in Yorkshire.
The downside is that any mention of this north of the border will strengthen Mr Salmond’s already considerable hand. As such, it leaves Mr Cameron with much to win – and lose.