IT'S all over, then, bar the shouting.
And the analysis of consultation responses. And the introduction of a bill. And the finalisation of an implementation plan. And parliamentary stages one to three of the bill. And the voting to prepare the way for a vote. And then, given the nature of things, more shouting.
Needless to say, those are the easy parts. Introducing his legislative programme yesterday, Alex Salmond made his own little bit of history. Nationalism's old dream has come within touching distance of fruition. The First Minister does not need to be reminded, of course, that such a distance could yet become a chasm.
Nevertheless, we stand at a point where a little rhetoric is justified. If the only aim was to win for Scotland a historic, once-in-a-generation choice, the SNP has achieved its goal. In introducing his plans for an independence referendum bill, Mr Salmond has brought the phoney war over self-determination to a close. He has, hasn't he?
We've suffered most of the traditional rubbish, the prophecies of doom (chiefly) and delight (occasionally). Anyone liable to want a say has had a say. Some 21,000 responses to the Scottish Government's invitation to consult have been received. A referendum will happen, even if – counter-intuitively, says this writer – it will still require the Royal Assent in the winter of next year. That's just business of the ritualistic sort.
There should be no more need, in London or Edinburgh, for bluff and double bluff, for waters muddied or clarified, for spreading confusion with the suggestion that anything capable of happening at any point in the future will happen (or not) on the day after independence. The time for grown-up reflection on the exercise of the popular will is upon us. Isn't it?
Voters must hope so. Thus far, the political games have been wholly predictable and predictably dreary. Fatuous Unionist attempts to turn every piece of small print into a headline – is a referendum allowable; is the question acceptable; is the right to decide even permissible? – cannot bear much more repetition. Equally, Mr Salmond's efforts to redefine independence according to an imaginary focus group of royalists, militarists and fans of the Bank of England are surely exhausted.
It would be nice, in short, if we could just get on with it. But don't, unless you have a strange idea of fun, hold your breath.
Everyone involved claims to want clarity above all else; no-one seems in much of a hurry to achieve that virtuous state. This is a mistake. If they keep it up, the contending parties will erode all trust in the process. That might suit some of them, but it will do the country no good. The politicians should – and I stress the word – realise that yesterday marked a new phase, the beginning of the endgame. Who's offering bets?
It might suit the Unionist book, for one thing, to pretend that every consonant and comma of the referendum question has to be purged of the potential to sway poor simple-minded voters. The voters are not deceived: we understand the essential question, however phrased.
It might suit Mr Salmond, meanwhile, to pursue a second, supplementary, or alternative question on the voting paper. He has a good argument, but suspect motives. Evidence exists to show that a lot of people – that's as specific as it gets – want to take devolution to its logical conclusions. They have that right. But since their aim is not the First Minister's aim, or so he says, haggling over maximal semi-autonomy is a distraction.
Yet who has made a big deal of a democratic right or, if you prefer, allowed Mr Salmond to make it an issue? The best that can be wrung from Unionists is that the referendum must be "clear-cut", "simple", "yes or no". They have not bothered to explain why that should be.
A just plebiscite would manage to reflect all shades of opinion. The third option might be the First Minister's "insurance policy", but for those who favour it that's neither here nor there. They are being, or are about to be, disenfranchised. The fact remains that if Mr Salmond draws his line in the sand over the outrage it might begin to seem, as Johann Lamont claimed yesterday, that this is "a referendum he really doesn't want to hold".
David Cameron isn't fussed over the date. All of a sudden, voting rights for 16 and 17-year-olds are no longer an issue. Attempts to tinker with the wording of the question will divert hobbyists, no doubt, but alter nothing of importance. Still the subordinates must negotiate. Still the Prime Minister and/or Michael Moore, Scottish Secretary, must shortly sit down with the First Minister to trade a few more horses, decide on section 30 orders and parliamentary time, and give us the glad tidings that our participation is permitted.
What bearing will any of this have on the outcome? How many hearts and minds will be won or lost, come the day, because Mr Cameron thinks he has put one over on Mr Salmond, or vice versa? These are, as Mr Moore puts it in his riveting way, process issues. They are not, as some would like to believe, the whole point of the argument. The sooner that truth is grasped the better.
That achieved, we can start to think about truly important things. First, this referendum, when it comes, will not be a plebiscite on the SNP or its policies. That's tough luck for Unionists – and for some Nationalists – but we will be voting for the independent existence of a national community, not a government.
Second, we can start to ask ourselves what that actually means. You can compile the usual list, starting with economic prospects. Yet what began in earnest at Holyrood yesterday was a psychological process, not another round in a poker game.
The point at issue, the real meaning of the 2014 question, whatever the words, is independence of mind. For or against? The rest is pernicious chatter.
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