“Westminster is probably having to be more sensitive than it would normally be and I think that there are political and party reasons for that.”
And Cameron’s comments at Prime Minister’s Questions last week would seem to suggest that strategy. Asked about the prospect of Scottish independence, the Tory leader pledged, rather than going in heavy handed, to make an “optimistic case for why we’re better off together.” He knows that if the Conservatives are seen to ignore a party that has been so emphatically endorsed by the Scottish electorate he risks alienating Scotland and potentially boosting support for independence. And he is too smart to fall into that trap.
“David Cameron is no fool, I think he will want to play it by the book, despite the fact that when it comes to a possible referendum he will certainly be campaigning against it,” McLeish adds.
So what is Salmond’s game plan? While Cameron is playing the reasonable game, McLeish believes, there is no reason for the First Minister to go on the offensive.
“Having that [victory] behind him, from a position of strength, I think [Salmond] will be much more statesmanlike. He doesn’t really need to offend people at this particular point so I would think he will be the statesman on behalf of Scotland, he will argue for more powers and fiscal autonomy as they go along, and he will be able to put his imprint on the debate on the referendum in the Scottish Parliament and the actual holding of it. So I don’t think he needs to be offending people.
“I also think that what he’ll want to do is to give London the opportunity to respond positively and if it does that’s fine and if it doesn’t then he can readjust his positioning at that particular point.”
Indeed, as the First Minister sets out to win over hearts and minds for Scottish independence, looking consensual, grown-up and statesmanlike will be more important for him than ever. If his vision is to be realised, he needs to appear not just first ministerial, but potentially prime ministerial.
And in the short-term, this game of cat-and-mouse with Westminster could pay off for the SNP Government. Dr Nicola McEwen, Co-Director of Edinburgh University’s Institute of Governance, argues that the Nationalists could use the referendum to extract concessions from the UK Government along the way. And that means more powers for the Scottish Parliament.
“I would draw parallels with the old Scottish Office which implicitly and often very effectively talked up the threat of the Scottish Home Rule movement in order to gain concessions. Even the Conservatives when they ran the Scottish Office were able to do that quite effectively. I think the SNP government will now try to use the forthcoming independence referendum to gain concessions for Scotland on other things, like the Scotland Bill. So far, the response of the UK government has been very pragmatic,” says McEwen.
In this light the UK Government may be inclined to think again about closing either RAF Lossiemouth or RAF Leuchars as part of the review of RAF bases in Scotland.
Whatever happens in the next five years, we are sure to see intense mind games being played between Holyrood and Westminster, with each treading carefully and anticipating the other’s next move. For both Salmond and Cameron, the stakes are high, and neither can afford to lose.