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David Cameron has promised greater devolution of powers to Scotland, insisting that a ‘No’ vote in September’s independence referendum would not be “a vote for no change”.
In a speech to the Conservative party’s Scottish spring conference in Edinburgh, the UK prime minister took pains to stress the benefits of Scotland remaining in the UK, largely avoiding the sharp critique of nationalist plans that have been the hallmark of the pro-union Better Together campaign.
Mr Cameron insisted further devolution could follow a vote against independence, in a nod to widespread support for the transfer of greater authority to Edinburgh, even among pro-union Scots.
“A vote for ‘no’ is not a vote for ‘no change’,” he said.
The Conservatives were committed to giving the Scottish parliament greater responsibility for raising more of the money it spent, he said, adding that devolution would come with the “crucial insurance policy” of remaining part of the UK.
However, Mr Cameron gave no details of what powers might be transferred; a caution that reflects deep disagreement among the pro-union parties about granting Edinburgh greater control of income and other taxes.
Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Conservative party leader, dropped her previously strong opposition to further devolution last year, and established a party commission to come up with specific proposals.
Ms Davidson’s U-turn was seen as an effort to rebuild support for the Conservatives in Scotland where the party holds only 15 of the Scottish parliament’s 129 seats and has only one member of the UK parliament representing a Scottish constituency. However, the commission is not expected to report until May and some Tories remain highly cautious about transferring further powers.
In a reference to Tory woes in Scotland, Mr Cameron described the “Scottish Conservative spirit” as being about “fighting through adversity” and having a thick skin.
But the prime minister said his big message was on the need to reject “negativity and narrow arguments” against independence to stress the UK’s success as a global agenda-setting “family of nations that should stick together”.
Some undecided voters have been put off by the negative tone of the pro-union campaign, which has largely focused on raising questions about the credibility of the Scottish National party’s economic case for independence rather than laying out an alternative vision of a future within the UK.
The SNP has seized in particular on pro-union differences on devolution to argue it would quickly fall off the political agenda if Scotland voted ‘No’.
Ian Lang, the former Conservative member of the UK parliament for Galloway, told ITV Border this week that any decision should wait until after the referendum and be made together with England and the other parts of the UK.
“My view is that we must win this referendum first and then talk about whatever changes might be considered necessary and we must do so on a United Kingdom basis,” Lord Lang said.
The Scottish Labour party is to unveil a devolution blueprint for discussion at its spring conference next week, but its conclusions are also likely to be contested.