Ian Swanson: Battle-lines are drawn as independence campaign begins

The starting gun is about to be fired in the independence referendum drive, political editor Ian Swanson reports

It’s nearly two-and-a-half years before Scots are due to go to the polls in the independence referendum, but tomorrow, Alex Salmond will take to the stage in an Edinburgh cinema to launch the campaign for a Yes vote.

There is speculation that celebrities – possibly even the SNP’s most famous supporter, Sir Sean Connery – could be there to endorse the vision of an independent Scotland.

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The pro-union, anti-independence campaign, in which former Chancellor Alistair Darling has promised to play a major part, is expected to stage its launch next month.

Some might think with decision day so far in the distance, this is all a bit premature. Is the public ready for such a prolonged campaign? Can even well-seasoned politicians sustain the momentum all the way from now until autumn 2014?

Some pundits say voters will only focus properly on the whole issue about six months before polling day.

But Yes campaign organisers insist there is a lot of work to do for what will be Scotland’s most important vote for 300 years. They say they want to build as broad-based a campaign as possible and give it a strong community flavour.

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One insider says: “Alex Salmond will lead the Yes campaign and the SNP is always going to be at the heart of the campaign for independence, but it will be broader than that and it won’t just be a campaign involving politicians.

“There will be business people, people with a trade union background, cultural figures and so on.”

The Yes organisers say tomorrow’s event will be a platform for other groups to launch their own campaigns at a later date – women for independence, young people for independence, business, trade unionists, teachers, all playing their part.

Will the public take any interest? “People will pay as much attention as they want,” says one source. “People can get involved or become aware of the arguments to whatever level they wish.”

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Crucial issues about the referendum have yet to be settled, including the exact wording of the question – critics claim the SNP’s proposed “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?” is biased – and whether there should be a “devo max” or “devo plus” option on the ballot paper, offering more powers for Holyrood rather than full independence.

The UK Government now appears to have accepted the referendum will be held in autumn 2014, as announced by Mr Salmond. Prime Minister David Cameron said last week he was “not fussed” about the date of the poll, despite his dramatic intervention in the independence debate back in January, when he demanded the referendum should be held “sooner rather than later”. There was even talk of an 18-month deadline for the vote to be held.

Mr Cameron’s new relaxed attitude to the date has undermined Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson, who was still describing the delay till 2014 as “unacceptable”. And it’s not the first time the Prime Minister has done that. On a visit to Edinburgh in February, he said he was ready to consider more powers for Holyrood if Scots reject independence, despite the fact Ms Davidson was elected on her insistence the Scotland Bill would be a “line in the sand”.

It remains to be seen what part the Tories will play in the campaign against independence. Alistair Darling has said it would be “plainly ridiculous” to refuse to share a platform with someone who agrees with him. But Labour politicians know that the Tories and the Lib Dems are unlikely to be assets to any campaign in Scotland in which they are involved.

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Labour also has to get to grips with exactly what it is going to be arguing for in the referendum debate. Many devo max supporters believe the party missed a trick by failing to embrace the “more powers” option and making it its own. With opinion polls suggesting this is the public’s preferred choice, it could have put Labour in the winning position. Instead, the SNP has been allowed to adopt devo max as its back-up plan, which would mean it could claim some sort of victory even if independence is defeated.

Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont has set up a special commission to look at the issue of more powers, but she appears unenthusiastic about the idea and the commission will not report for a year.

None of the opposition parties wants a devo max or devo plus option on the ballot, but the idea is out there, it seems to have public support and in such circumstances it seems bizarre it is not being offered to the voters.

The confused state of the other parties risks leaving the SNP effectively unchallenged in these early, but arguably crucial, days of the referendum campaign.

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There are hard questions which must be asked about independence and lots of issues to explore.

Having been accused by the SNP of belittling Scotland as “too wee, too stupid and too poor” the anti- independence parties are now quick to insist that, of course, an independent Scotland would be economically viable, it’s just they don’t think it’s the best choice. But what would the economics of independence look like?

Some unionists claim independence threatens the welfare system, the NHS and defence jobs. Even if such claims are scaremongering, people deserve to hear what the real situation would be.

Tomorrow’s gathering at Cineworld in Fountainbridge is unlikely to provide the answers, but hopefully the next two and a half years will.

How to be a ‘yes’ man

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THE SNP has issued a guide for members explaining how they can help win a Yes vote for independence through grassroots action. Ideas include:

• Speak to your colleagues, hairdresser or taxi driver about independence.

• Take part in radio phone-in programmes to spread the independence message.

• Wear an SNP enamel pin badge to spark conversations about independence.

• Write a letter to a local newspaper about independence.

• Put a badge or twibbon on your Facebook or Twitter page.