Ian Swanson: Indy battle sparks more questions than answers

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THERE have been a lot of questions flying around in the last few days about Scotland’s future after the independence referendum – and sadly not very many answers.

On Monday, Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon set out a list of 50 questions which “the anti-independence campaign must answer”, ranging from what new powers Scotland should expect if it stays part of the UK to how much a Trident replacement will cost.

And today, Better Together’s Alistair Darling claimed the Yes side could not answer basic questions on currency, pensions or tax rates.

The pro-independence camp can at least point to the 670-page White Paper – and its extensive Q&A section – setting out what independence would mean. Ms Sturgeon has challenged the No side to produce an alternative document, explaining its vision of Scotland’s future inside the UK.

She argues the September 18 referendum offers a choice of two futures and voters need to know what kind of Scotland each result would lead to.

But no sooner had she made the call than it was answered by Chancellor George Osborne’s warning of a further £25 billion worth of spending cuts if the Tories win the next Westminster election, with half of the savings coming from the welfare budget.

It’s just the sort of bleak future the SNP might outline for a Scotland which turns its back on independence, but here it is from the horse’s mouth.

Interestingly, in her speech last week Ms Sturgeon departed from the “milk and honey” version of independence to acknowledge Scotland would still face “big challenges” after a Yes vote. She named constrained public finances, a legacy of debt and a shrinking working population relative to the pensioner population.

But she insisted these were not arguments against independence but rather helped make the case for doing things differently.

Indeed, the prospect of renewed Conservative rule from Westminster is probably one of the strongest incentives for many Scots to consider a Yes vote. After the Chancellor’s comments, even coalition partner Nick Clegg attacked the Tories for planning to make the working-age poor bear the burden of their cost-cutting.

Commentators say Mr Osborne’s speech was designed to put Labour on the spot in the run-up to the general election. If Labour fails to back sweeping welfare cuts, the Tories will say they lack credibility or would raise taxes.

But indulging at this stage in trap-laying for a contest in 2015 is surely reckless behaviour when the future of the UK has to be settled before that.

With the general election beginning to loom, there is a danger all the UK parties will start to focus on their chances of forming the next government at Westminster, forgetting the bigger picture.

Meanwhile, David Cameron is still under pressure to hold a televised debate on Scotland’s future with Alex Salmond. The Prime Minister has repeatedly refused, but the SNP won’t accept no for an answer.

It doesn’t seem an unreasonable proposal, given the two men are the respective leaders of what some call “Scotland’s two governments” and they take opposite views on the issue.

But Mr Cameron more or less accepted an English Tory “toff” is unlikely to be convincing for most Scots – and indeed could have the opposite effect.

The Prime Minister realises he would be playing into the SNP’s hands. Not all his colleagues seem to be quite so alert to that danger.