When Alex Salmond, the first minister of Scotland, shakes hands with David Cameron in Edinburgh tomorrow, the Scottish National Party will try to present it as the meeting of equals. It will, indeed, be more of a meeting of equals than might have been expected – but that is a measure of Mr Cameron's recapturing of the initiative. For the first time in years, Mr Salmond is struggling to outplay a Westminster politician.
Strangely, his problems began when the SNP won a majority in the Scottish Parliament last year. Suddenly, he had a mandate for a referendum on independence and could not hide behind London's obstruction. Almost immediately, he temporised, knowing full well that winning a referendum was a tall order. He suggested a third option, between the status quo and independence, of further devolution – the maximum compatible with remaining part of the UK.
For once, he was on the defensive. With no consensus on a model for "devo-max" – unlike the multi-party agreement on the basics of home rule in 1997 – and his two senior colleagues in the SNP wanting a straight yes/no vote, he needed Mr Cameron to make a mistake. Yet the Prime Minister and Michael Moore, the Liberal Democrat Secretary of State for Scotland, avoided that trap, by respecting Scotland's right to decide its own future.
Thus Mr Salmond, at his meeting tomorrow, will accept that the referendum will be on the simple proposition that Scotland should be an independent country. In return, the SNP suggests, the UK Government has conceded Mr Salmond's preferred date, late in 2014, and will allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote. Neither is quite the concession it is claimed, however. The date is as late as is decently possible in the four-year term of the Scottish Parliament, belying Mr Salmond's professed confidence that he can win. Giving 16-year-olds the vote sets a precedent that is likely to be followed for elections in Scotland and in the rest of the UK, but, on the likely date of the referendum, only those over the age of 16 years and 10 months will be on the electoral register. In any case, the evidence suggests that under-18s may be just as opposed to independence as other young Scots.
It looks as if the high-water mark of Salmondism may have passed, and the low-water mark of Scottish Labour likewise. Sir Chris Hoy, crystallising the Olympic pride in being both Scottish and British, was evidence of the first; the recent speech by Johann Lamont, the Scottish Labour leader, calling on the party to break away from its public-sector and benefit-claimant client groups, may have been evidence of the second.
Yet no one prospers by underestimating Mr Salmond. It may well be that, even if the referendum goes against him, he will be able to claim the credit for Scottish gains. Thanks to Mr Cameron's new tone of respectfulness towards Scotland, the debate over the nation's generous funding by central government has been adjourned for years to come. And all parties are agreed, if Scotland stays in the UK, that there should be further devolution anyway. Mr Salmond's championing of "devo-max" against his more fundamentalist colleagues may allow him to claim a consolation prize.
The next two years promise more of a roller-coaster ride. Let the arguments for and against independence be joined.