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Positive case for facing the facts of a Yes vote

SCOTTISH Financial Enterprise, the body representing the country's £7 billion financial services industry, issued advice to its members this week on the consequences of a Yes vote in September's referendum.

The 16-page briefing was measured, clear and painfully careful to avoid any comments which might undermine SFE's claim to be politically impartial.

This was a dispassionate, factual assessment of how independence might affect one of the country's most important industries, though the conclusions are worth studying by anyone with an interest in the debate.

SFE said the consequences of a Yes vote "cannot be known in any detail" before the referendum because so much would depend on subsequent negotiations with the UK and EU. It said the creation of a new currency was a "distinct possibility" but the unilateral use of sterling, without a formal pound-sharing deal, "cannot be ruled out".

Statements by both governments should be "treated with caution", it said, as both are engaged in the campaign, but the Scottish Government's independence White Paper should be approached with particular care. The blueprint "cannot be seen as a balanced or reliable guide" to what might happen after a Yes vote, SFE said, noting the document was substantially an SNP manifesto "and should be seen as such".

A sober analysis from a strait-laced industry body, it was the kind of thing people who say they crave facts about the choice on offer should welcome. Predictably enough, Alistair Darling talked it up ("another serious report from impartial experts which makes the case that Scotland is better being part of the UK") and John Swinney talked it down ("this is simply a briefing note from SFE officials and not the view of the industry").

The story, when it appeared in the papers, fitted the pattern of the past couple of months. But instead of being a "boost for No", as similar interventions have been reported, we now know it was pretty much a textbook example of what has been going wrong for the pro-UK side. Since the Westminster parties ruled out Alex Salmond's key currency union proposal and since a succession of companies raised concerns about independence in their annual reports, polls have shown the No camp's lead shrinking.

More Scots believe George Osborne is bluffing on the currency deal than think he's telling the truth. The doom, the gloom, the scaremongering, the negativity - accusations thrown relentlessly at the pro-UK side by Mr Salmond (in a wholly positive way, of course) - have produced a backlash that is drawing people to Yes. Well, that was the received wisdom at Holyrood by the end of the week and it didn't take long for a headline to proclaim Better Together "in crisis". The cross-party group, it was reported, had been spooked into ditching a forthcoming ad campaign highlighting the uncertainties and risks of independence and would instead focus on the benefits of staying in the UK.

It's true to say Blythswood Square is a less happy place right now than Hope Street, where the offices of pro-independence Yes Scotland campaign have been energised by the steadily shifting polls. But Better Together is not about to fall into Mr Salmond's biggest bear trap of all - persuading his opponents to stop asking awkward questions.

Private polling and focus groups in the past few days have confirmed what last week's ICM and YouGov surveys suggested, that the flood of stories undermining Mr Salmond's proposals has generated a significant backlash. However, insiders insist people "come back to No" when the hard realities are explained.

"Scots who are undecided will not vote Yes if they cannot overcome the uncertainty," one strategist said. "And that means we will not stop asking questions." That has been Mr Darling's firm view ever since he took the helm at Better Together.

He made the point at a press lunch in Edinburgh on Monday, explaining more than once Mr Salmond would dearly love him to shut up about unresolved issues such as the currency or EU membership. The First Minister's accusations of "scaremongering" would definitely not put him off, he said.

Better Together's £1 million campaign will be officially unveiled next month. It will be a surprise indeed if an image of a pound coin is not to be found anywhere in the cinema ads or on the poster hoardings.

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