Listen to this article
David Cameron left Edinburgh in October 2012 delighted with the deal he had just struck. Although he had just signed the papers agreeing to let Scotland vote on whether to break up the United Kingdom, the prime minister and his advisers believed they had secured the referendum on their own terms.
Nearly two years later, and with the independence referendum now days away and looking too close to call, some have begun to ask whether Westminster politicians gave too much away to the Scottish nationalists.
Mr Cameron believed his key success was to make sure there was a single question on the ballot paper and that voters were given a stark choice between Yes and No. But with all three parties now scrambling to offer wide-ranging further devolution, some believe this option should have been on the referendum in the first place.
Len McCluskey, the head of Unite union, said earlier this week: “Right at the outset we argued that there should be two questions on the ballot paper: independence should be one and the other should be devo max . . . Had there been two questions there would be none of the concerns that are being expressed now.”
But the lead negotiators from London say securing a single question was vital. Michael Moore, who was Scotland secretary at the time and in charge of the Westminster side of the negotiations, told the Financial Times: “The referendum had to be clear and had to be about independence. It is nonsense if you try to ask more than one thing at once.”
Another negotiator pointed out: “What would have happened if the vote was split equally between the three options, as is likely? The nationalists would have tried to claim that was a victory for them.”
Others say the mistake was not necessarily getting a single-issue ballot, but rather conceding so much to get it. One Scottish National party negotiator said: “The unionists’ biggest blunder was to be so committed to a single question that they conceded everything else too quickly.”
The key concession made by Mr Moore and his team was on timing. While the pro-union side wanted to move quickly and capture the momentum, Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP deputy leader and lead negotiator, pushed for a much longer lead-time.
The SNP adviser said: “This was the big issue for us. It means we have been able to build momentum slowly, and also means that all the intellectual arguments have now been aired and we are now fighting instead about extra powers being granted for Scotland – that is home territory for us.”
Those on the Westminster side admit they could have been tougher on timing, but point out they were so concerned with the prospect of Mr Salmond muddying the issue with a multi-question ballot, they were prepared to back down on what they saw as a minor point.
They also say they secured a key victory in letting the Electoral Commission play a role in setting the question. This could turn out to be key: the commission knocked down the SNP’s preferred question, deeming the words “do you agree” at the beginning of the question to be leading.
Other criticisms have also been levelled at Mr Cameron and Mr Moore, including granting votes to 16-year-olds and not letting Scots who live abroad, or even in the rest of the UK, have a vote.
Mr Moore admits the two coalition parties disagreed on whether to extend the franchise to younger voters, but points out that polls suggest they are not significantly more or less likely to vote for independence than the rest of the country.
But the option to extend the franchise beyond Scots was not even considered, according to two people from within the No campaign. Mr Moore said: “This had to be a question for the people of Scotland. It would have been a political crisis if Scotland voted for independence and was held inside the union against its will by the rest of the UK. Or worse, if it had been the other way round.”
And while some of those in Westminster would have liked to allow Scottish expats to vote, a mechanism could simply not be found for doing so, given there is no legal Scottish nationality. Mr Moore said: “It would have taken 10 years of court action simply to decide who got to qualify as Scottish. Would you have had to be born here? Would your parents?”
Whichever side wins, there will be a temptation to look to the agreement signed nearly two years ago as holding the root causes, argues Vernon Bogdanor, the constitutional scholar. He told the Financial Times: “This is just hindsight. If Cameron loses this vote, everything he has done until now will be judged to have been wrong.”
Letter in response to this report:
Get alerts on Scottish Independence when a new story is published