THE SNP looked a bit rattled last week.
For the first time since their landslide victory in 2011, that glow of self-confidence has faded. On BBC's Question Time, the normally fluent external affairs spokesman, Humza Yousaf MSP, let the Dimbleboy get to him over the SNP's polling figures, and tripped embarrassingly over his cliches.
And I haven't seen Brian Souter looking so fed up since Holyrood abolished Section 2a on homosexuality in schools. There he was, resorting to grim, Sillars-style warnings of the consequences of a No vote. The party seemed taken aback by the ferocious reaction to their transition to independence document.
So, are the Nats losing it? Well, the polls are not encouraging – with 32% saying they would vote for independence – but then they never have been. Since time immemorial Scottish opinion polls have shown only around a third of Scots support formal independence, while the vast majority want greater powers for Holyrood.
The howls of derision that greeted the Scottish government's document on the transition to independence, were entirely predictable too.
The criticism was not without some justification, since it did rather look as if Alex was going to create the universe in six days. The Unionist press can always be relied upon to pour cold water on any suggestion that the Scots are capable of managing their own affairs.
Moreover, talking about abstract matters like crowd-sourced constitutions is an easy hit for the opposition, who can always say – as Johann Lamont did last week – that it is all "playing games" instead of focusing on real problems like the NHS and further education.
But the SNP had better get used to it, because it'll be like this all the way to October 2014. The Scottish press's flirtation with the SNP following the 2011 campaign is over. The year 2014 is going to be more like 1999, when the party were monstered by the Scottish press and ended up having to print their own paper in desperation.
Of course, the Nationalists are aware of this and realise they will need to use new media, and broadcasting, to get their message across. But smart electioneering will only take them so far.
There is tension arising between Yes Scotland and the SNP over who takes the lead on the campaign. And there is grumbling about the failure of Yes Scotland to make a significant impact. Some are suggesting that its leader, Blair Jenkins, "isn't a politician" – which is true. But that should be his strength because the project certainly won't succeed if it lapses into party tribalism.
There was nothing wrong with the transition document, which was well argued and simple. But the Yes camp needs to find a way to express its case with more conviction, elan and confidence, if it is to combat the inbuilt, small "c" conservatism of the Scottish voters.
The Unionists are expert at feeding the fear that Scots have of "getting above themselves". "A constitution? A Scottish Treasury? Och, we cannae do things like that – we're just Scots." Almost every utterance of Alistair Darling, the chair of Better Together, is preceded by a silent "Who do you think you are?"
The truth is that the Nationalists themselves have only recently begun to think in practical terms about things like negotiating a constitution and are uncomfortable with the mechanics of instant nation-building.
The SNP has been a brilliant vote-winning machine, but it has never been anywhere near winning independence, and under Alex Salmond it has always pursued a gradualist, incremental approach to self-government, rather than a big bang.
And any way you look at it, independence is a leap of faith. They need to bridge the Scottish confidence gap, our psychology of national defeatism.
The way to do this is to focus on the confidence gap in the Unionist camp: the alternatives to independence. What powers are the Tories, Labour and the Liberal Democrats actually proposing? What is their constitutional transition programme?
Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson has performed a U-turn on powers and insists the Tories want to offer something better than the big zero they delivered after 1979. But what?
The LibDems are talking about a full-scale reshaping of the UK constitution towards federalism – which if anything is more ambitious than the SNP's idea of independence in the UK, since it would involve big changes in Westminster.
Labour are rapidly retreating from any concrete proposals at all, as they see their chance of winning the 2015 UK general election improving. Alistair Darling has started using the formulation "there is no consensus" on any new powers, which is exactly what Margaret Thatcher said after 1979.
It is very difficult to see how the opposition parties are ever going to get their act together on this. Unless Alex Salmond does it for them.
The most productive move for the SNP – and indeed for Scotland – would be to let these ideas, not just the SNP's own, become the focus of national debate. The Scottish Government should seek to draw the parties out on their plans, perhaps by offering a National Convention on the Constitution in 2014, at which all the constitutional options could be explored, so that the people of Scotland get the information they need.
This will force the opposition parties to state their case, put their cards on the table and let the voters see whether they stack up. For the Nationalists, it would have the added advantage that, if the vote is No, they will at least have made themselves part of the process of delivering the "next" stage of devolution.
THE SNP have nothing to fear from this consensualism. The big problem for the Unionist parties is they are afraid to be seen on the same platform. Well, that is not a problem for the SNP, or the Yes campaign.
The more the Nationalists are associated with a general move towards greater powers for Holyrood, the more their credibility will be enhanced. And the better Alex Salmond will be able to argue that it was the UK Government, not they, who insisted it was a single-question referendum which effectively disenfranchised supporters of enhanced devolution.
Alex Salmond is the only political leader in Scotland with the ability to carry this off – he is still very popular and is the nearest thing Scotland has had to a national leader in 300 years.
The more he draws the other parties on to the terrain of constitutional change, and gets them talking about their ideas, the less they can accuse him of being away with the constitutional fairies. The more their proposals are examined, the less complex and difficult the case for independence will seem.
And who knows, they may find a lot of agreement among them about the kind of problems that Scotland faces in trying to revive its economy.
The lesson of the referendums of 1979 and 1997 is the Scottish voters say Yes when they see their political parties co-operating and No when they see them falling out in unconstructive sectarianism.
Whoever manages to show they can provide leadership of Scotland at this crucial moment will inherit the future, with or without the referendum.
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