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The shape of things to come ... months of the same old Project Fear arguments

SCOTTISH politics appears to have got caught in a loop.

Holyrood seems to be going through the same routines again and again, like a stuck record - in the days when we still had turntables, that is.

Johann Lamont accusing Alex Salmond of dishonesty about secret documents on the fiscal implications of an oil fund had a distinct air of deja vu. Then we had David Cameron's claim that an independent Scotland would be more vulnerable to terrorism. Project Fear is alive and well despite the promises of the new Scottish Secretary, Alistair Carmichael, to accentuate the positive in the referendum campaign.

The only remarkable thing about last week's First Minister's Questions was how Salmond and Lamont are continuing to lose weight. They may still be political heavyweights, but they no longer look as if they are candidates for the coronary ward. And that's not an insignificant matter in a country that is struggling to give up its self-destructive eating habits.

I've been spending most of my weekends recently going around the country promoting my book, Road To Referendum, and I have to say the country as a whole is in pretty good shape right now - at least on the surface. From Inverness to Wigtown, Kirkwall to the Borders, much time and money has clearly been spent sprucing the place up - both by local councils and private home owners. Is there a cottage left in Scotland that hasn't had an extension built on to it? Is there a town that doesn't have an annual book festival?

Tourism organisations have been extracting maximum value from local history and the natural environment. Take the Galloway Forest Park, the biggest in Europe - which used to be a blank space on the map and is a world centre for outdoor pursuits like mountain biking and bird watching. Robert Burns heritage trails seem to be all over the place. Nationalised Prestwick airport should rename itself Robert Burns International, quick, before some other airfield beats them to it.

The Scottish landscape is changing in all sorts of interesting ways In Orkney, you can hardly move for windmills - they don't seem to think they are a menace to birdlife or bad news for house prices. And anyone who still thinks renewable energy is a joke should take a trip to the Solway coast and see the Robin Rigg offshore wind farm - like a white forest on the ocean.

But the more things change the more they remain the same. The complaint I've been hearing is that there aren't enough jobs to keep people in their communities. Much has been spent on local infrastructure, education and social services but the economy is not self-sustaining. Young people are better educated than ever, but they can't get jobs and they can't afford houses. And there is frustration that the constitutional debate is missing the point.

Who really cares about the legal advice on how long it would take to renegotiate Scotland's entry to Europe? Or whether it's a good idea to have Scottish passports, or to replace the pound with a Scottish currency? My evidence is largely anecdotal of course, but it does confirm what the opinion polls say: that Scottish voters still don't get the point of independence.

Now, the Yes Campaign will say that Scotland needs independence precisely to deliver the kind of self-sustaining economic growth that the voters are demanding. The Scottish Parliament needs access to the "economic levers" which remain in the southeast of England. Look at the colossal amounts being spent on infrastructure - Crossrail etc - in London, where more public money is being spent per head of population than in all the other regions of Britain combined. Or the fast rail link, HS2, where there isn't even a pretence that it will ever get to Scotland. There is a powerful argument that the Scottish Parliament needs to acquire substantial economic powers to combat this over-centralisation.

However, this is not how the independence argument is coming across to most voters, who see the politicians engaged in abstruse arguments about constitutional arrangements that seem tangential to Scotland's real problems. This is partly because the Yes campaign has been almost entirely on the defensive for the past year - responding to successive Unionist warnings about the consequences of independence, rather than leading the debate and making a positive case.

But it's not as if supporters of independence have lacked opportunities. Every time the Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, comes to Scotland he seems to put his foot in it. Last week, we saw the rather intelligent and reasonable Scottish Secretary, Michael Moore, abruptly sacked and replaced by the excitable Orkney and Shetland MP, Alistair Carmichael - a politician regarded as a bit of a bruiser in the trade.

Moore, we are told, had failed to put in a sufficiently combative performance in the TV studio against the Deputy First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon. But the former Scottish Secretary was rather well-respected in Scotland because he seemed pretty open-minded about the constitutional future. He provided an intellectual counterpoint to the apocalyptic warnings being made by Westminster politicians. You almost got the impression Moore wouldn't be too bothered if Scots voted Yes - that he could live with it. It may well be that this was exactly the way the Unionist case needed to be prosecuted.

We are told that Carmichael intends to stop UK Cabinet ministers coming to Scotland and "lecturing" Scots about the dangers of self-government. Well, good luck to him on that. I don't believe the Chancellor, George Osborne, will feel inhibited from expressing his views on the fiscal implications of independence, the future of the pound, relations with the Bank of England. Nor will other ministers. We'll be hearing the same old arguments all the way to the referendum. Better get used to it.

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