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Cameron in last-ditch pledge to Scots

Published:Wednesday | September 17, 2014 | 9:00 AM
File British Prime Minister David Cameron.

By Mure Dickie in Edinburgh

David Cameron has joined his political rivals to reassure Scotland on future government spending, during a last-ditch visit north of the border to appeal to voters to reject independence in Thursday's referendum.

The prime minister and his Labour and Liberal Democrat counterparts signed a joint pledge to maintain the method of allocating funding that allows higher public spending per capita in Scotland than in England, even as greater powers are transferred to the Scottish parliament.

The unprecedented commitment on funding, published on the front page of the Daily Record newspaper, underscores the depth of concern among Westminster parties that Scotland could vote for independence.

With just three days to go before the historic vote and polls showing only a narrow lead for the No campaign, Mr Cameron on Monday travelled to Aberdeen for what his aides said was a final appearance in Scotland before the referendum.

In a speech to Conservative party activists Mr Cameron warned Scottish voters that a Yes vote would be irreversible and would constitute a "painful divorce".

The reassurance on funding may help to win over some undecided voters, but it is sure to fuel anger among some Conservative members of the UK parliament who say Mr Cameron has already gone too far with promises of devolution to Edinburgh.

Mr Cameron, Labour leader Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem leader, had in August jointly signed a commitment to the speedy transfer of new powers for Scotland if it votes to remain part of the UK.

But the August pledge made no mention of funding, and party leaders have previously stopped short of explicitly committing to maintaining the current method of setting the block grant that the UK government transfers to Scotland, known as the "Barnett formula". The cross-party Yes Scotland campaign for independence said on Monday: "It's clear that Project Panic is willing to say anything in the last few days of the campaign to try to halt the Yes momentum - anything except what new powers, if any, they might be willing to offer."

Some MPs have suggested the promised transfer of more control over income tax will mean changes in the way the block grant is calculated that would undermine Scotland's ability to maintain the relatively high levels of per capita public spending it currently enjoys.

The new pledge says Scotland's ability to fund its National Health Service will be ensured by continued use of the Barnett formula.

"Because of the continuation of the Barnett allocation for resources, and the powers of the Scottish parliament to raise revenue, we can state categorically that the final say on how much is spent on the NHS will be a matter for the Scottish Parliament," it says.

Supporters of independence immediately voiced scepticism about the pledge. Some noted the somewhat indirect phrasing of the reference to Barnett, while others insisted that UK parties could not be relied on to keep any promise after a No vote.

However, any post-referendum move to change how the block grant is calculated to Scotland's cost would now likely be seen as a betrayal of trust by many voters.

The prospect of continued relatively generous funding will upset MPs in Westminster who already think that Scotland is being promised too much as the price of staying in the 307-year-old union with England.

Defenders of the Barnett formula say the current level of block grant is justified by Scotland's relatively high needs in areas such as health and the provision of services to remote and lightly populated areas. Scottish Nationalists dismiss suggestions that Scotland is subsidised, saying that it more than pays its share of tax if a geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue is included.

The Daily Record said the party leaders signed the pledge after it demanded they "clearly explain what they are offering to the Scottish people".

"The agreement was brokered by former prime minister Gordon Brown and Scottish Labour," the newspaper said.

The joint pledge also refers to the Scottish parliament as "permanent", a formulation that suggests possible change to its current constitutional status depending on the will of the UK parliament.

Mr Brown has called for legislation in which the Scottish parliament would be declared "permanent, irreversible and indissoluble".

In a foretaste of the recriminations should Scotland vote Yes, a government aide insisted on Monday that ministers had at no stage taken victory in Thursday's referendum for granted. Any such suggestion was "absolutely complete and utter nonsense", the aide said.

Alex Salmond, Scotland's first minister, dismissed the commitment, saying he suspected the reason it had been described by the Daily Record as a "vow" was that people still remembered Mr Clegg's failure to keep his past pledge not to increase student tuition fees.

"This last minute, desperate offer of nothing is not going to dissuade people in Scotland from the huge opportunity of taking Scotland's future into Scotland's hands this coming Thursday," Mr Salmond told the BBC.

(c) 2014 The Financial Times Limited