The question confronting Unionist parties as they begin to articulate their arguments against independence is how to present to the Scottish people a credible alternative, while continuing to remain as part of the United Kingdom.
The conceptual idea of “devo-max” put forward by the SNP, is still in its infancy. David Cameron, in his visit to Scotland two weeks ago, expressed a willingness to extend the powers of the Scottish Parliament but was unable to articulate what this actually meant. Sir Menzies Campbell is in the midst of leading a Liberal Democrat Commission on the issue, and civic groups have set up their own campaign on the future of Scotland.
Today, another group entered the fray. Led by the former shadow finance spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, Jeremy Purvis, the “Devo-Plus” group has been formed to present an alternative to both independence and devo-max.
Essentially the plan would place responsibility for income tax, corporation tax and most welfare spending with Holyrood, while leaving pensions, VAT and national insurance with the UK Parliament. Scotland would be given the power to raise the money that it spends.
The proposals, which were formed in conjunction with Reform Scotland, have received cross party unionist support, with Alex Ferguson MSP of the Conservatives, Labour MSP Duncan McNeil, and former Liberal Democrat leader Tavish Scott putting their names to the plan.
Tactically the launch has given the Unionists the chance to take the initiative away from the SNP with regard to the extension of devolutionary powers to Scotland. Devo-Max is still an ill-defined concept, and the SNP has been so far unable to fully explain what it would entail. Now, with yet another alternative on the table, there will be pressure for them to respond and explain how their plans differ.
Of course, should the Scottish people vote Yes for Independence, all of this becomes academic and there is a danger, in framing the debate in terms of extending powers, that Unionist parties miss the bigger picture.
However, for today the ball is in the SNPs court, and they will have to present a full idea of what they mean by Devo-Max much sooner than they perhaps would have wished.