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How Salmond outplayed Cameron in the Scottish referendum talks

The timing of the vote, the wording of the question, and allowing 16-17-year-olds to vote. 

By George Eaton

When David Cameron and Alex Salmond signed the deal in October 2012 allowing the Scottish parliament to stage a legally binding referendum on independence, the consensus was that Cameron had “outplayed” the First Minister. After calling the SNP leader’s bluff in January 2012, the PM had denied him the second question he wanted on devo max. 

I wrote at the time that this view was mistaken and that Salmond was “the winner” from the agreement. That this was the case is even clearer now, with all of the concessions the First Minister secured working to his advantage. 

Here are the three ways in which he outmanoeuvred Cameron. 

1. The timing of the vote: 2014, rather than 2013

The UK government originally insisted that it would only give Scotland the right to hold a binding referendum (a power constitutionally reserved to Westminster) if it was staged by September 2013. But this demand was dropped in return for Salmond agreeing to a one question vote. The result was that the nationalists were gifted the commodity they needed most: time. Having begun as the underdogs, they have had an extra year to build a grassroots campaign capable of winning over the undecided and to exploit the anger over measures such as the bedroom tax and other benefit cuts (most of which were only introduced in April 2013). 

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2. The wording of the question

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The second key power that Cameron conceded to Salmond was the right to determine the wording of the question. While the First Minister abandoned his first choice – the biased “Do you agree that Scotland should become an independent country?” – on the recommendation of the Electoral Commission, he was still able to amend it to “Should Scotland be an independent country?” This wording allowed Salmond to lead the “Yes” campaign and to project the nationalists as the positive force in the campaign (while also avoiding any reference to the UK). Had Cameron played hardball and forced Salmond to accept a wording such as “Should Scotland remain part of the United Kingdom?” it could have been Alistair Darling leading the “Yes” campaign.  

3. Allowing 16-17-year-olds to vote 

Unlike in UK and Scottish parliamentary elections, Cameron reluctantly agreed to allow Salmond to extend the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds. The SNP’s leader’s motives were not hard to discern. Suspicious of the establishment and with fewer historic ties to the Union, these first-time voters were always likely to be susceptible to nationalism. His prediction has been fulfilled as recent polls have shown the young to be one of the most pro-independence groups. Last weekend’s YouGov poll showed 60 per cent of 16-24-year-olds favour independence compared to 51 per cent of the rest of the population. In a referendum as tight as this one, the votes of 16-17-year-olds could alone determine the outcome. 

And did Cameron really win on devo max?

Cameron’s success in forcing Salmond to agree to a one-question referendum (denying him the consolation prize of devo max) was hailed as his biggest negotiating coup. But few now argue that this remains the case. With a clear majority in Scotland for further devolution, Westminster has been forced to offer new powers in any case, but has struggled to overcome public scepticism of its promises. Had devo max, or something close to it, been on the ballot paper to begin with, it would have had no such problem. While telling voters to say “No” to independence, it could have also told them to say “Yes” to a reformed Union. The irony is that Salmond’s failure may yet gift him victory, as voters agree that independence is the only way to guarantee real change.