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Cameron ready to gamble and force early referendum on Scottish independence

By Tim Montgomerie
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Screen shot 2012-01-09 at 08.01.04

Image from the SNP's optimistic Your Scotland, Your Future paper.

Alex Salmond wanted to choose the timing of a referendum on Scottish independence and he wanted to choose the question. It now appears that David Cameron is moving decisively to end both options for the SNP leader and First Minister of Scotland. There is talk of the referendum needing to happen within 18 months and that the question should be a straightforward one between independence and continuation of the United Kingdom. Alex Salmond had been wanting a multi-option vote in which Scots could also choose 'devo max' - an option short of independence but involving further devolution. Opinion polls suggest that Scots would probably reject independence but might endorse 'devo max' if it was presented as a middle way.

Mr Cameron stated his position on yesterday's Marr programme:

"I think what Alex Salmond is trying to do – I think he knows the Scottish people, at heart, don't want a full separation from the United Kingdom – and so he's trying to sort of create a situation where that bubbles up and happens. Whereas I think we need some decisiveness, so we can clear up this issue."

Cameron's move is one long advocated by former Scottish secretary Lord Forsyth but in today's Times (£) Magnus Linklater warns that there are real dangers in it:

"Mr Cameron is taking the one gamble that cautious Tories have always argued against: the so-called Thatcher move. This involves an English Prime Minister appearing to dictate matters to the Scots, rather than leaving them to take the decision for themselves. It tends to go down badly. Mr Salmond is a formidable player. He is likely to turn the Cameron move to his advantage by pointing out that this is a Tory gambit aimed at forcing the pace of change on the Scots rather than allowing them to take their time."

Labour will play a crucial role in this. In some opinion polls the combined vote share of the Scottish Tories and Scottish Lib Dems is lower than that which Margaret Thatcher achieved. The Coalition is toxic north of the border and Alex Salmond will want to politicise any referendum. It is vital that David Cameron enlists the support of people like John Reid, Alistair Darling and, yes, Gordon Brown if he is to avoid becoming the PM who presides over the end of the Union.

Certain Labour figures are certainly willing to play hardball. The Labour peer, Baroness (Ann) Taylor of Bolton (born in Motherwell) wants Scots living in England and further afield to be able to vote in any referendum. The view is that independence can be more easily defeated if the full Scottish diaspora has a say. Scotland on Sunday commented: "Nationalists are likely to interpret Taylor’s move as an attempt to skew the result, based on the assumption that those who have settled and married in England are more likely to disapprove of independence."

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