Michael Moore: 'We are much, much stronger together'

The Secretary of State for Scotland tells Matt Chorley why he is quietly confident as he takes on Alex Salmond

Like many parents, Michael Moore spent Christmas reading – and re-reading – The Gruffalo, to his two-year-old daughter Ella. The tale of the tiny mouse taking on the terrifying big beast of the forest, and turning him to his own advantage, could be a manual for the quietly spoken Secretary of State for Scotland as he prepares to outfox Alex Salmond in his battle for independence.

Mr Moore was promoted to the Cabinet when his fellow Scot Danny Alexander moved to replace David Laws at the Treasury. The son of an army chaplain, he was a parliamentary researcher before succeeding David Steel in the Borders constituency. Now he is tasked with little short of preserving the 300-year-old union.

The 46-year-old has a low profile nationally – so low a national newspaper used a picture of him walking up Whitehall for a feature on faceless bureaucrats – but colleagues hope his below-the-radar, softly-softly approach will contrast with the Mr Toad rumbustiousness of Scotland's First Minister.

Where David Cameron risks claims that Thatcherite Tories are interfering with Scotland, Mr Moore strikes a more emollient tone. His message, like that of a market town bank manager, is simply that he is here to help.

"There is a legal problem with the Scottish Parliament's powers which we wish to help to fix." However, he rejects the idea of a multiple-choice referendum offering no change, increased powers or full independence. "If you had 55 per cent in favour of independence but 85 per cent wanting more powers, which one will trump the others? According to the SNP, it's independence. There are lots of democrats who will struggle with that notion."

Westminster ministers think Mr Salmond is now on the back foot after admitting he didn't want a referendum until autumn 2014. "The truth is most people simply want to get on with having the debate on this momentous decision... a truly historic decision to have to make, and I am confident we will choose to stay in the UK." Delays mean that firms are reluctant to invest, he cautions, speaking between visits in the Lothians and Borders to highlight the economic case for the Union.

Scottish farmers benefit from £600m in EU subsidies, negotiated by the UK having real sway in Brussels, he says. And Scotland's whisky industry relies on the UK "having the clout to negotiate into markets around the world".

"Whatever sector that we are working in, your livelihood is better protected by being part of a big marketplace like the UK. Our economy will be stronger, in defence we are more secure... our welfare system is more robust... We are much, much stronger together and we would be weaker apart," he explains.

Born in Northern Ireland but raised in Scotland, he warns against believing the myth that only Alex Salmond can speak for Scots. "I would be very cautious of accepting at face value the SNP view of Scotland. There is a diverse range of Scots elected to represent Scotland in [Edinburgh] and Westminster." But not many Tories. There are now more pandas in Scotland (two) than Conservative MPs.

He is not ready to be pigeon-holed as a Tory stooge. "I am a Scot," he says firmly, "elected by my constituents in Scotland, who lives in Scotland, and happens to travel to London to fulfil my responsibilities as an MP and some of my ministerial responsibilities. Half of my ministerial time is in Scotland."

During a restful two-week Christmas break, he and his wife Alison were able to get out to see a film whose title could be a portent: Mission: Impossible.

"It's good to get a bit of escapism like that," he jokes, before continuing his car journey through the hills. He would love to be out walking, were he not so busy trying to make sure that they, and the rest of Scotland, remain part of the Union.