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No room for polite debate when our future is at stake

SOME like to do their bit for the greater good through volunteering, toiling in such noble professions as teaching or medicine, or giving cash to charity.

Then again, in these heady, pre-referendum days, it might be argued there could be no finer expression of altruism than the opening of a luxury retreat for politicians. Let this proud, no-expense-spared establishment go by the name of High Dudgeon.

High Dudgeon expects to be doing a roaring trade from now until September 18. Your own MSP or MP might be checking in soon. The official opening was meant to be next week, when the "100 days to go" marker is reached, but due to events the staff at High Dudgeon have had to prepare themselves ahead of schedule with their potions, hot stones, and whale song tapes.

It is not a problem. At High Dudgeon there are no problems, just challenges we have yet to hug. It would have been better, however, had a certain Mr Darling of Edinburgh South West told us in advance that he was about to send business hurtling our way.

The former Chancellor was being interviewed by the New Statesman in his capacity as head of Better Together when his thoughts turned to Mr Salmond's response to Ukip gaining its first seat in Scotland. "He said on the BBC that people voted Ukip in Scotland because English TV was being beamed into Scotland. This was a North Korean response. This is something that Kim Jong-il would say." Blue touchpaper lit, a spokesman for the First Minister duly condemned the remarks as pathetic and puerile, and demanded an apology. We are readying the Rainbows Suite, complete with complimentary basket of extra cuddly puppies, for said spokesman now.

In retrospect, it was only to be expected that no PR-good would come of Mr Darling giving an interview to a London-based magazine. These events have form in sending a rush of blood to the heads of Scottish political leaders.

Only this week, Alex Salmond, the First Minister, had to offer a non-apology for telling a men's magazine recently that he admired "certain aspects" of Vladimir Putin. References to the Russian president one week, North Korea next. Who are they trying to impress?

Doubtless, some will be joining the First Minister's allies in shaking their heads, more in sorrow than in anger, at any comparison between a democratically elected leader and a notorious despot. Can it really be only a month ago that the Queen sent a letter to the Church of Scotland General Assembly expressing the wish that whatever the outcome of the referendum, people of faith and people of goodwill would come together to work for the social good of Scotland? What chance that if the brickbats are already flying?

Indulging in name-calling, it might be argued, is not the kind of thing Scotland should be doing in this, a landmark year. These are the barbs of the playground, the saloon bar, the lowest common denominator. Scotland should be raising its democratic game, not descending to the lower leagues where words are used as sticks and stones to bloody and bruise.

All fair points, to which there can only be one reasonable response: balderdash. Mr Darling's reference to North Korea, a country usually rolled out when some union or other body has elected its leader with 99.9 per cent of the vote, is guilty of nothing more than being rather tired. As a political joke, it is the kind of jibe that might still raise a snigger in the bars of Westminster, while otherwise leaving most of the population with their sides still intact. He might as well have made a crack about the Corn Laws.

From the way the smelling salts seem to have been whipped out by the First Minister's side, however, it might be thought the SNP had been in the political game for five minutes rather than eight decades. Moreover, it gives the impression that SNP politicians have never uttered a harsh word about opponents in their lives. In what is clearly a gross case of mistaken identity, the party that had been thought of as slick, capable and feisty, like a fighter hungry for the title, is instead revealed as an outfit that would run a mile from verbal fisticuffs. Less Rocky, more Adrian.

Mr Darling claims that folk are now reluctant to have their say for fear of the consequences. "I haven't been threatened - they wouldn't threaten me - but if you are a member of the public and you are trashed for having your say, what do you do? You stop it. No-one wants to live in a country where this sort of thing goes on." Perhaps he will see the backlash against his comments as proof of that general mood.

While one is all for the debate being conducted in a reasonably civilised manner, one would hate to see the day, or the Scotland, in which passion and humour did not have their place. When it comes to this referendum, we should instinctively start to count the spoons when anyone, from whichever side, pleads for the debate to be elevated to some higher plain where Socratic principles rule okay. That is not reality. That is not politics. And it is certainly not Scottish.

The to and fro of politics is not there to provide copy for newspapers or soundbites for radio and television, welcome as those things are to those of us in the trade. Being able to argue one's case, whether in a parliamentary chamber or on the stump, is a necessary proving ground for any politician. Some of it might seem like so much unedifying heat, but it gives voters a chance to hold policies, and personalities, up to the light.

Looking at the campaigns so far, what is striking is not how heated the debate has become but how civilised it has been.

For a people exposed to one of the longest campaigns in political history, Scots have shown a Zen-like patience. They have risen above the fray, kept the faith in the face of posterior-numbing boredom, and stood their ground while assailed by claim and counterclaim.

But every election has its seasons. UK General Elections compress them into a month, American presidential elections extend them across years. After a grind of a winter and a see-saw Spring, the Scottish referendum debate is long overdue its summer. It may not start next week at some media-manufactured 100 days to go mark; it may have to wait till after the World Cup and the Commonwealth Games, but come it must, and we should welcome it.

In politics, there is something worse than name-calling. There is passivity. Worse, there is politeness. If we cannot become inspired, passionate, and yes, sometimes downright rude while discussing independence then there is something wrong. We should not be afraid of this.

There is a line, of course there is, and the average, decent Scot, of which there are millions, as opposed to a handful of internet shock jockeys, knows exactly where it is. Scotland can handle the heat in this electoral kitchen. We might even miss it when it is gone.

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