Pro Union campaign on the back foot without a decision on devo more

Appropriately enough, caution greeted Alistair Darling’s launch of Better Together, the  pro Union multiparty campaign to counter the  SNP and challenge the notion that extends well beyond the pro- independence ranks, that Alex Salmond is  head and shoulders above all possible rivals.  So far, not too bad.   “Better Together” sounds more positive than  “No Independence” – (even though the title unfortunately clashes with a Scottish NHS monitoring website.)

Alan Cochrane, the Union’s greatest champion in the London press agreed the sobersides former Labour chancellor was the right man for the job.

I said earlier that Alistair Darling is no P J Barnum. He is also no Alex Salmond. That is another of his strengths.

.  Typically, Alex Salmond shot back with a reply plucked straight from the day’s news agenda.

Firstly, he (Darling)  claimed that the Union was a ‘celebration’ of Scottish values, on the very day that the Prime Minister of that political union is proposing to eliminate housing benefit for young Scots.

David Cameron’s musings about further drastic welfare cuts was just the sort of thing that might make more Scots want to quit the Union – always assuming of course that they were convinced an independent Scotland could continue to meet the cost themselves and bearing in mind that the issue cannot be put to the test yet, because  in practice, welfare is not even devolved. The point was taken up by Salmond’s MSP colleague John McAlpine in the Daily Record.

Darling’s authoritative attacks on the UK coalition’s austerity programme will help him brush off the SNP jibe that he’s no more than a Tory stooge. But the gaping hole in the unionist garment is the failure so far to agree on an alternative to independence. Pressure to come clean over devo max or devo more will be irresistible over the next two  long years of campaigning.  The Westminster-based parties surely know that and will respond. But when and how?  As an FT editorial (£) says, the present line is one that cannot hold.

The fact that Scots do not seem to back independence does not mean Mr Darling has an easy task. David Cameron’s offer to consider further devolution if the Scots vote to stay in the union suggests that the status quo is unlikely to hold. Mr Darling’s first mistake has been to shut the door on a discussion of what this extension of powers might involve. The difficulty is that this is where the cross-party consensus runs up against its own limits.

And lurking in the background is the growing likelihood of a UK referendum on EU  membership. This is bound to shake up the arguments on both sides of the Scottish debate.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London