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Abandon mudslinging in Referendum Wars part two

There wasn't a spin room, unless you counted the tiny kitchen in my then Edinburgh flat where a posse of journalists repaired after the debate then dissected the exchanges in between clearing out the drinks cupboard and the food too.

On one thing we were all agreed: it hadn't gone the way of any of the pre- bout predictions. The man much lauded for his wit and legendary debating skills seemed strangely low key and a bit off form. The man given a points victory by most pundits hit home with some carefully crafted questions; questions nobody, least of all his main opponents, could have anticipated.

It was January 1992 and Alex Salmond had gone home a happy man having apparently seen off Donald Dewar. In truth, expectations had not been anything like as high of the other performers that night: languid Ian Lang, the then Scottish Secretary, and the Liberal Democrats' Malcolm Bruce.

Then, as now, the top Tory in the land was routinely treated as the pantomime villain. Then, as now, the LibDems had no chance of election victory. But it was assumed that big Donald would soon see off that precocious whippersnapper from the Nats. It was a raucous affair, the McEwan Hall packed to the rafters with the faithful from all parties; none of your carefully calibrated Ipsos Mori audience, selected to reflect proportional allegiances or indecision. Raucous and electric, with the redoubtable Kirsty Wark haudin' the jaikets.

In subsequent and forensic examinations of the occasion, every bit as animated as this week's post mortems, it became clear that Mr Salmond had involved himself in some heavy duty rehearsal time. Mr Dewar, typically, had made some hasty preparations on the run from 14 other things, relying on intellect and experience.

Comparisons can be useful as well as odious. With the intensity of the media focus and the imminence of the referendum, there would be no question of either Alistair Darling or the First Minister trying to wing it on Tuesday night; and no shortage of advisors pronouncing on everything from tie selection to body language and, perhaps fatally, question selection.

No shortage either of unhelpful interventions from "friends and allies". The SNP leader who predicted another Bannockburn with Mr Darling slinking off tae think again will probably be required to fall on his claymore if he slips up again when Referendum Wars 2 hit our screens on August 25, courtesy of the BBC.

But the problem with the political classes and their minders and groomers is that they operate in rarefied climes, often losing touch with both the populace at ground level and with plain English. A triple- locked pension is a desirable commodity. Hands up who knows what triple-locked means in this context. Thought not. Often, almost always, simplicity wins the day. How about: your pension is totally secure and guaranteed to be paid in full and on time?

The website wars are a particular case in point. Party and referendum apparatchiks scan each other's online and print productions line by line for fiscal inaccuracies, dubious claims and stray porkies. The people they are trying to convince do not.

When the great Scottish public lifts its eyes from the Commonweath Games and the Eastenders omnibus it does not immerse itself in who said what to whom and when. Nor does it much care. It didn't care the other night when both men checked their notes for quotes as podium ammo. In fact, it got downright scunnered.

It's only really worth calling the other guy out when the lie is big enough, like Danny Alexander unblushingly inflating the cost of setting up new Scottish government departments by a factor of 12, at which point not just Team Salmond but the academic whose figures had been pochled cried foul.

Neither has the target audience very much patience with well- rehearsed charges and counter charges repeated ad nauseum. Certainly they want answers and information, but they want to feel future proofed against adversity, not steeped in internecine historical wars. They also want, and will respond to, that vision thing.

Difficult as it may be, I would argue that the debaters in round two should abandon any thought of personalised mudslinging. The folks back home don't like it and, in any case, neither man is likely to change his vote. The voters want to know what is likely to happen if they say Yes and, just as importantly, what are the risks attached to voting No.

The difficulty for both men is that neither can give a truthfully accurate answer and the audience continues to find that difficult to accept. What do we want to know? Everything. When do we want to know it? Now!

Ask any chancellor what's in his or her next budget and he or she will tell you that depends entirely on the fiscal reality at the time. Anyone who says they know Scotland will be much better/much worse off as an independent nation is giving you, at best, a guesstimate. Anyone making a prediction as to the price of oil five years hence should get themselves a tent, a headscarf and a crystal ball.

Truth has not been the first casualty of this campaign but it's certainly taken more than a flesh wound in the fiscals.

On the broader political issues, I'm amazed that Better Together are getting such a free ride with a battle cry of "more powers". A bit of tax raising here, a bit of welfare there, but please don't press on the details because we've all got different game plans not just between the parties, but inside them too. Pigs and pokes spring to mind. The smart Alex of 1992 simply asked calmly of his Labour opponent how many business closures in Scotland had been prevented in the previous 13 years of opposing the Tory government. Simple. Deadly.

A 2014 equivalent would be to ask calmly which of the myriad plans for powers could the public rely on being offered. And, as a supplementary, under which combination of the two major Westminster parties currently on level pegging, and their possible partners the LibDems (or, whisper it, Ukip) might these be delivered?

For that, dear readers, is just as much as an imponderable as the price of oil.

We might have enjoyed a slightly clearer glimpse of the future had the UK Government not set its face against any pre-referendum negotiations. Correction, against negotiations with the Scottish Government; any amount of the stuff directly with Joe Public.

And another wee oddity. Westminster has repeatedly indicated that it will only devise a referendum question on Europe in 2017 following negotiations with the EU on what concessions might be on the table.

It's OK to eyeball these much- derided Eurocrats but not the nearest, dearest neighbours whom we love and respect so much.

Let's just hope, for the sake of all our futures in Europe, that when that decision day comes along Boris is not on the Downing Street team.

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