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Have the Nationalists stolen a march on 2014 debate?

HOLYROOD has enjoyed an oddly sleepy start to the year.

A veteran Tory I chatted to this week reckons MSPs ended last term thoroughly drained by months of heightened political animosity, enjoyed relaxing Christmas breaks and are not yet in any mood to return to the fray. I suspect he's right. But the semi-truce won't hold for long.

Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon both put forward interesting ideas this week, the First Minister talking about an independent Scotland's written constitution and his deputy talking about talks about talks following a Yes vote.

Soft-ish interventions, you might think, and certainly nothing to shake the feeling of post-Yuletide torpor. But on another level they hint at an important shift in the Government's referendum campaign and point to some of the battles ahead.

Ms Sturgeon set the ball rolling on Tuesday with the first posting of a new referendum blog she'll be writing on the Government website. In it she accepted that an independence settlement (the all-important deal which would determine Scotland's share of military hardware, for example, or the terms and conditions for keeping the pound) could not be pre- negotiated ahead of the referendum in 2014. But she insisted talks should take place between the Scottish and UK governments on the SNP's "transition plan" for independence. By that she means the lengthy to-do list a Yes vote would throw up – the legislation required and the issues to be negotiated.

A day later, in a speech to the Foreign Press Association in London, Mr Salmond mused on his vision for an independent Scotland's written constitution. His suggestion that Scots should enjoy a constitutionally enshrined right to free education prompted criticism that he was a) writing a blank cheque and b) seeking to preserve SNP policy for ever more. But that slightly missed the point. The First Minister really was musing. This was an idea he liked, he was at pains to emphasise, but after a Yes vote crafting a constitution would be an exciting opportunity for all parties, civic bodies and citizens in 2016.

It is significant that both Ms Sturgeon and Mr Salmond sought to move the debate beyond 2014 and some of the more immediate concerns about independence. Discussing the nuts of bolts of implementing a Yes vote or the first tasks of the "first independent Parliament" in 2016 creates a sense of momentum, an impression the SNP is on course for victory. That is badly needed with the Yes camp 20 points behind in the polls.

It also broadens the debate beyond consideration of just SNP policies for an independent Scotland. Ms Sturgeon began to present a more generalised, inclusive vision of independence in a speech last month and that approach will continue. Ministers endured bruising rows last year over plans to keep the pound and EU membership. But independence is not just about their blueprint, they want us to know, we'd all shape the new state.

Tactically, Ms Sturgeon wants to pre-empt one of the key charges that will be flung at the Nationalists: we'll not know exactly what we are voting for in 2014.

Her blog was explicit on that – unless UK ministers agree to discuss her transition plan, she said, "the responsibility for any so-called 'uncertainty' in the referendum debate will lie squarely with Westminster". (Critics might quibble that if an independence settlement cannot be pre-negotiated, as she concedes, there will inevitably be uncertainty. But ... well, let's just say Ms Sturgeon is a dextrous politician.)

Michael Moore, the Scottish Secretary, dismissed all this as an attempt to "fast forward through the difficult bits".

A good line. But a sign, too, that the Nationalists have done more to frustrate their opponents and set out their stall in these first, slightly dozy weeks of the year.

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