Image from Bella Caledonia

One should never really believe political promises, but ‘vote no for more powers later’ has to be one of the worst. Especially from the mouth of someone making that promise only because he feels he ought.

Last week, while speaking in Edinburgh, David Cameron offered Scotland more powers, but only if independence was rejected.

“I am open to looking at how the devolved settlement can be improved further”, he said. “And, yes, that means considering what further powers could be devolved.”

Offering voters what they might want through a different and delayed means of your own choosing strikes me as less political masterclass, and more desperate politician.  Nonetheless, Conservative-supporting facets of the media have applauded Cameron’s move.

Writing in The Guardian, Conservative Home editor Tim Montgomerie has followed
Cameron’s statement with a call for him to “seize the moment”.

“By offering to extend Scottish devolution he can be the Conservative leader who saves the union. By promising to balance Scottish devolution with a commitment to new arrangements for the government of England, he can radically improve his own party’s electoral prospects. And through these changes – with the introduction of city mayors and greater localism – he can be the PM who replaces one of Europe’s most centralised states with a political architecture fit for the 21st century.”

I’m a big fan of devolution. I think the best place for power to be is as close to the people as possible. For me devolution and the debate around independence isn’t just about territory or a binary discussion between what powers reside and why in Westminster and Holyrood, but how powers – democratic and economic – extend down to councils and to communities, and how those powers are used.

Montgomerie has identified the ill – the moribund institutions that can dominate sections of English local democracy. The cure he proposes will be interesting to watch – the 12 new city mayors to be elected, as well as police commissioners, will hopefully revitalise local democracy in England. And there is always a case for councils and communities across all nations of the UK to enjoy greater localism.

But Cameron’s jam tomorrow promise for Scotland is a hurried attempt to claw back ground gained by Salmond and the SNP, a ‘shush now, behave, and we’ll give you a treat’ attempt at cajoling voters using a strategy that ceases being effective once someone’s older than about six. Cameron and today’s Conservatives have scant interest in devolution – Montgomerie in the same piece notes it was Salmond, and not Cameron, that “[chose] to put Scotland’s relationship with the rest of the UK at the top of the political agenda”.

Cameron’s intervention in the independence debate is a self-interested salvo, an attempt to adhere to the role of UK Prime Minister and retain the power it brings, a role that he feels he must play, rather than a great passion or driving ambition on his part.

Cameron and the Conservatives seem likewise only interested in localism and English devolution when it stands to benefit their own grasp on power. You can’t argue for reducing the number of seats in Westminster in order to make everyone’s votes more equal, when you are also switching to individual voter registration despite warnings that up to six million voters are currently missing from the electoral roll. For others like Eric Pickles, localism and cohesion are being confused with ill-thought out assimilation. And slashing local public services, from lights to libraries, doesn’t inspire hope that Cameron is really interested in standing up for what’s happening on the doorsteps of England.

Any intervention by Cameron into the independence debate with pledges and promises will be regarded with bemusement by the majority of the Scottish electorate. We expect his thoughtlessness and hashed attempts at making do when it comes to the devolution debate. But he risks more by only being half-hearted and damaging about changes to English democracy, especially when his own party are arguing for him to be otherwise.