A pledge for further devolution signed by the leaders of the three main Westminster parties may turn the tide of the independence debate

This morning the leaders of the three main Westminster parties released a pledge promising to devolve more powers to the Scottish government in future. The ‘vow’, published on the front page of the Daily Record newspaper, guarantees that “permanent and extensive new powers for the Parliament will be delivered” under a process that will begin the day after the referendum, September 19th. It further promises to retain the Barnett formula for public expenditure adjustment, restates the Scottish Parliament’s powers over NHS spending in the country, and concludes that ‘a No vote will deliver faster, safer and better change than separation’.

Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond has already dismissed the pledge as a “last minute desperate offer of nothing” whilst the ‘Yes’ campaign has painted it as an “insult” that has been offered far too late. The vow has also galvanized the opposing campaign with “Better Together” praising it as “a vision around which Scotland can unite”. Speaking to the BBC Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander countered criticism that further plans for devolution have come too late, arguing that “Here in Scotland we have been talking about these powers for many months”. Scotland’s Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has also been quick to comment; she deems further devolution of powers insufficient and has asserted that “If we want to guarantee the powers we need, the way to do that is to vote yes”.

The fact that the pledge specifically mentions the future of the NHS in Scotland belies it as a critical, if not defining, issue of the debate. Alastair Darling, leader of the ‘No’ campaign, said today that the NHS will face potentially severe budget cuts in an independent Scotland. He may well be right; confidential plans leaked to the BBC by a senior NHS whistle-blower reveal drastic cost saving measures to tackle a £400m funding gap. Despite the ‘Yes’ campaign’s promise to increase the NHS budget the documents state that “the status quo and preservation of existing models of care are no longer an option”. Former PM Gordon Brown has also weighed in on the issue by accusing Alex Salmond and the SNP of “perpetuating a lie” about protecting NHS Scotland. Evidently the figures don’t lie, and it’s hard to square Salmond’s rhetoric with the revelations contained in the leaked documents.

The timing of the vow’s release certainly has a distinct air of desperation, but it should nevertheless be viewed as a powerful move by the three main Westminster parties in aid of the ‘No’ campaign. The aim is surely to induce further uncertainty into the minds of possible yes voters and strengthen the resolve of potential no voters; why choose independence with all the associated risks when you can have a much greater degree of self-governance at no cost whatsoever? The pledge further guarantees that the UK will be witness to major constitutional changes even in the event of a ‘No’ result maintaining the union. The full extent of that change will be decided on Thursday.