Ian Swanson: Some candour for the final countdown

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Countdowns are exciting, almost by definition. Whether it’s a blast-off from Cape Canaveral or blowing up a block of flats, tension mounts as the time ticks away. Anticipation is all-absorbing. And when it comes the final result, all being well, is dramatic and satisfying.

So is that how it’s going to be with the referendum? Both sides insist they are confident – but not complacent, of course.

When Alex Salmond first named the date, September 18, it was almost exactly 18 months to go to voting day. Now we are down to double digits.

In one sense it’s a fairly arbitrary milestone, but the Yes and No campaigns do seem to have changed gear since Monday’s 100-day staging post, perhaps the anti-independence camp more noticeably, with its new slogan.

Up until now it might have been dubbed the campaign that dare not speak its name – but now the word No is on the posters and badges, albeit softened with “thanks”. Politeness makes it sound slightly more positive.

But the No strategists had not bargained on Gordon Brown’s contribution to the day.

While Alistair Darling and his colleagues in the cross-party Better Together campaign were making the most of the blanket media coverage for the 100-day countdown, the former prime minister was telling lobby journalists at Westminster that the pro-UK campaign’s “patronising” arguments risked galvanising the nationalist cause and prompting independence “by mistake”. The timing may not have been helpful to his own side, but Mr Brown’s comments felt like a dose of honesty being injected into a debate which is too often dominated by the predictable, pre-prepared platitudes and put-downs of the two official campaigns.

Just as the No campaign was getting used to its new identity, Mr Brown made it clear he believed bad mistakes had been made.

His off-message remarks included a call for David Cameron to debate with Alex Salmond – an idea the Prime Minister has repeatedly rejected.

And he said the UK Government camp had fallen into the trap of seeing the campaign as Scotland versus Britain or Scotland versus England. He said: “People came up to Scotland and said ‘Britain says no to Scotland having its share in the British currency’, or ‘Britain says your defence jobs are going to go if Scotland goes independent’, or ‘Britain says you’re going to be bankrupt’ and it looked like it was Britain versus Scotland.”

The past year and a half has seen plenty posturing over what can and cannot be expected if Scotland opts for independence. Scaremongering and exaggerated claims have abounded.

But perhaps the most recent nadir came the other week when, at rival press conferences held one straight after the other and just across the road, Alex Salmond announced Scots would benefit from a £1000 “independence bonus” if there was a Yes vote and Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander claimed there would be a £1400 “UK dividend” if it was a No vote.

If there really has been a change of gear for these last 100 days up to the big day, can voters look forward to a bit more candour and a little less 
bravado?

Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael seemed almost to be getting into the spirit of it yesterday when, giving evidence to Holyrood’s economy committee, he said he belonged to a campaign called Better Together, not Perfect Together.

More realism like this and we could have “lift-off”.