The future of the UK is at stake. This is, without doubt, the biggest gamble of David Cameron's leadership.

By Dr Matthew Ashton

So far David Cameron's coalition government looks like it will be remembered mostly for its austerity.

However the news today that the Cabinet is in talks about allowing a binding referendum on Scottish independence could completely change that. If true then this would be possibly the biggest gamble of Cameron's leadership with the future of the entire UK at stake.

Essentially he's trying to out-bluff Alex Salmond, which as any political expert will tell you is a pretty difficult task.

Salmond has long spoken of his desire to hold a referendum, but only on his terms. By offering him the option of a binding referendum, but only within a very limited timeframe, Cameron is asking him to jump now or not at all. I'd also be very surprised if Cameron doesn't attempt to work it in his favour – for instance, deciding when the referendum will take place.

While Salmond remains extremely popular with the Scottish electorate, the credit crunch has had a serious impact on his arguments for independence. A few years ago he could point to Ireland and Iceland as small countries that had succeeded beyond anyone's wildest expectations. Now both are virtually bankrupt and it's doubtful whether the idea of joining the EU or the euro as a new member is quite as attractive as it once was.

Another factor that Cameron could use in his favour is the percentage of the Scottish population which would have to vote in order for it to be valid. Something similar was done in 1979 when a referendum was held on Scottish devolution. The Cunningham Amendment stated that the referendum would only be legally binding if 40% of the electorate voted for it. As it turned out 1.2 million Scots voted for devolution, but because this was only 32.9% of the electorate then the referendum was defeated. A similar amendment today on any vote on Scottish independence could be crucial in deciding the outcome.

If Salmond decides that the terms of the referendum are not to his liking and rejects it then Cameron and future UK prime ministers can always argue that the Scottish had their chance to vote on the issue but turned it down, effectively shutting down the debate.

Perhaps Salmond should look very carefully at what happened to Nick Clegg when he was offered a similar Faustian pact. The Liberal Democrats had long dreamed of having a referendum on proportional representation (PR) that would significantly increase the number of seats they hold at Westminster. This was offered to them as part of the bargaining process that created the current coalition government, but it was a referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) rather than full PR. It was also scheduled to take place in a year's time when the Liberal Democrats would be at the height of their unpopularity.

By letting the Conservatives define the terms of the debate they unsurprisingly lost the referendum, ending their hopes of gaining proportional representation for at least a generation. It now looks like Cameron is trying to force a similar bargain on Salmond. This is political poker-playing of the highest level and for both sides the stakes couldn't be higher.

If Salmond accepts and wins then Cameron will go down in history as the prime minister responsible for the breakup of the UK. If Salmond refuses to have the referendum, or accepts it and loses, then he could be letting the opportunity of a lifetime slip through his fingers.

Dr Matthew Ashton is a politics lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. Visit his blog.

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