Why Cameron's Scotland plan has rattled the SNP

The PM has called Salmond's bluff by demanding an independence referendum sooner rather than later.

Ever since the Scottish National Party's remarkable victory last May, Westminster has been in a state of shock, unsure how to proceed. But now, finally, David Cameron, determined not be remembered as the man who lost the Union, has resolved on a course of action. He will allow the SNP to stage its own binding referendum on independence on the condition that it is held in the next 18 months (any referendum after this date will be advisory, as it would always would have been) and that it offers a straight yes/no question on Scottish secession.

Cameron's move upsets Salmond's plans in several respects. The First Minister has long intended to hold a referendum in the second half of the Scottish parliament, perhaps in 2014 on the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, when he believes that discontent with the Tory-led government will be at its height. In addition, he planned for the ballot paper to feature two questions, one on independence and one on full fiscal autonomy or "devolution max". Aware that there may not be a majority for the former, the SNP leader is eyeing the consolation prize of "devo max", a stepping stone to full independence. But Cameron is determined to deny Salmond these two advantages. To add authority to his stance, he will publish a consultation paper later this week revealing legal advice that the referendum will only be binding if both parliaments agree to its timing and wording.

There is, of course, a risk that all this could backfire. Cameron's intervention could be seen as an attempt by the Tories - not a popular breed in Scotland - to hijack a referendum that the SNP has an electoral mandate to hold. It was an argument made at length by Nicola Sturgeon, Salmond's deputy, on the Today programme this morning. But, as she conceded, there is a potential contradiction in the SNP's stance. It maintains both that Cameron has no right to dictate the terms of the referendum and that his move will backfire. But if Cameron's move will backfire why is the Scottish government so opposed to it? The answer, as Sturgeon will not say, is that the SNP is not convinced there will be a majority for independence in the next 18 months (or ever) and, consequently, is determined to reserve the option of devolution max. Yes, some Scottish voters will resent Cameron's intervention but others will ask, "why doesn't Salmond want an early referendum? What's the big feartie afraid of?"

Set against this must be the disorganisation of the pro-Union side (who will lead the No campaign?) but Cameron has called Salmond's bluff and the initiative, for the first time in months, is with him.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.