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The talk of 2013

SCENES from the independence debate: I took my son, Jamie, to the very excellent Stand comedy club shortly after New Year.

It was a packed and raucous show, with a mostly young audience. The compere – a tubby guy from Edinburgh whose name escapes me – launched into an obscene rant about Alex Salmond and Scottish Nationalists who, apparently, are people of a sordid sexual disposition who need to be put down in various brutal ways. And anyway, he said, the Scots "could never govern themselves 'cos they are totally and completely f***ing useless". As a punchline, he bawled out: "Does anyone here support independence?" Not a soul spoke.

You can't judge the politics of a country by its comedy, but if this had been Barcelona, that comic would have been lucky to escape unharmed. Catalans, who are also having an independence referendum in 2014, are fiercely proud of their abilities, whether they support independence or not, and would have taken exception to this affront to their national dignity. Now, don't get me wrong: it's good that we laugh at ourselves (though if the compere had been funny it might have helped). I only offer this as a random insight into Scotland's frame of mind as we enter 2013: the insecurity and awkwardness many Scots feel about the whole idea of independence; the lack of confidence in their ability to govern themselves; uncertainty about whether they even want to bother with it. It's Yes Scotland's biggest nightmare: the credibility gap.

Opinion polls confirm that Scots still just don't get independence. At least, not yet. The most striking thing about the referendum debate thus far is how little change there has been in Scottish attitudes to independence since the SNP's landslide victory in 2011. Scots still oppose independence by around two to one – a ratio that has remained constant for the last 20 years, give or take the occasional poll giving independence a marginal and transitory lead. It's hard to look at the evidence and not conclude that the Yes campaign has lost even before the campaign has started. Labour and the Better Together campaign are already awarding themselves battle honours and talking of getting three million No votes.

The Yes campaign team insists it is relaxed about the polls and points out that the SNP's landslide victory in the Scottish elections in 2011 was incubated largely during the campaign itself. In the year running up to the Holyrood elections, Labour had a comfortable lead in the polls and it was only after the campaign started that Scottish voters decided that Iain Gray was toast.

You won't hear any defeatism in the Salmond camp. The First Minister remains as confident as ever about his ability to shift opinion – and his supporters have an almost messianic belief in the Great Persuader's personal charisma. Nationalists are fully aware of the confidence factor – and the fact that most Scots, even if they think that Scotland could probably do pretty well as an independent Nordic-style country, are not sure that they want to go through all the hassle of actually breaking up Britain.

But supporters of independence hope that voters will eventually come to realise that, in a sense, they have no option but to go for broke in 2014. Scots will be the laughing stock of every stand-up comedian in Britain if they bottle out of self-government.

Moreover, if Scotland votes No, Nationalists believe the UK parties will rapidly abandon their vague promises of a better devolution and will turn to retribution. The voting powers of Scottish MPs in Westminster may be curbed. The Barnett Formula on Scottish spending will certainly be reviewed and tighter financial controls exercised on Holyrood. Free tuition fees, free prescription charges and elderly care may all disappear as Scotland is plunged into enduring recession and the last of the oil revenues drain south. It's a bleak picture, and probably one with an element of truth.

Anyone who believes that the UK Government is itching to give the Scottish Parliament more economic powers than those in last year's Scotland Act really hasn't been keeping up. The review of Barnett that will follow the implementation of the Scotland Act will be an opportunity for the Coalition to answer the charge that Scotland has been getting more than its fair share of public funding. With the threat of independence removed, the UK will no longer feel any need to placate Scottish demands for what many English voters believe is special treatment.

So, both referendum outcomes hold a degree of risk for Scots. However, you will not be hearing much of this negative stuff from the "Yes minister", Nicola Sturgeon, who has promised that only positive noises will emerge from the Yes campaign in 2013. The Nationalists say that they will use this year to outline their positive vision of what an independent Scotland will actually look like – a process that will begin with the tabling of the Referendum Bill in a few weeks, and will culminate in a White Paper on independence in the autumn.

They hope to demonstrate that Scotland could be just as prosperous and secure as countries such as Denmark and Finland, and that there is nothing odd or eccentric about wanting to run your own affairs.

Bring it on, says Better Together. The No campaign thinks the detail of independence is exactly where the Yes campaign falls flat on its face. As soon as the Nationalists start outlining their plans for a Scottish currency, a Scottish central bank, a Scottish BBC, a Scottish army, then the natural scepticism of the Scottish voters comes into play. So does their insecurity and fear of the unknown. Do we really want a "wee BBC" run by BBC Scotland? Would England let us use the pound? Won't Scotland be thrown out of Europe, as Jose Manuel Barroso implied last year? What toytown army could Scotland put on the field of international conflict?

The No campaign is also promising to be positive this year, but the fear factor will never be far from the surface. The campaign leader, former chancellor Alistair Darling, is no happy-clappy, sunny-side politician. He promises "respect", but doesn't see anything wrong in a bit of honest negativity. Darling will have no qualms, in his forthcoming tours of Scottish business people and "opinion-formers", about pointing out that, in his opinion, independence will make Scotland poorer, weaker and more culturally introverted.

And just to help matters along, a team of civil servants in the UK Treasury is currently crunching the numbers and, we are told, will produce a series of documents in the next 12 months which will stress the positive benefits of Union, but will also be devastating in their grim depiction of an impoverished independent economy.

The positive atmosphere will also be punctured by rows about the wording of the question in the referendum. Better Together still insists that the SNP's question, "Do you agree that Scotland should become an independent country?", is a leading one. The independent Electoral Commission will give its view in the next couple of months. It will also have views on the funding of the respective campaigns – the Yes campaign is concerned that spending by the three opposition parties in the referendum campaign will give Better Together an unfair advantage. Mind you, neither side seems to have any shortage of ready cash, and they are busy setting up networks of local supporter groups to "bottom up" the campaign.

There will be no hiding place in 2013 for constitutional agnostics. You won't be able to walk down to your local shopping centre without being accosted by friendly neighbours with happy smiles, offering positive advice on Scotland's constitutional destiny. But it is one thing persuading Scots to vote for a Nationalist government in a devolved parliament in Holyrood; quite another to persuade them to vote to leave the United Kingdom.

Holyrood is a devolved administration, which doesn't raise taxes, or make big decisions about starting wars, or about currency and so on. There is no great risk involved in voting SNP for the Scottish Parliament. But to translate this into the high-risk decision of "going it alone" as an independent state requires a leap of faith, however many assurances are given by the SNP about continuity in provision of health, welfare benefits and pensions. The Yes campaign needs to be realistic about the mountain it has to climb.

Scotland is not an oppressed nation, and the Scottish people do not on the whole feel like second-class citizens in the UK – even though there may be a case for saying that they are. Scotland's interest in political nationalism is also a very recent phenomenon.

There was no nationalist movement to speak of in Scotland in the 19th century, when Ireland was in almost constant revolt against the union with Britain. Most Scots were enthusiastic supporters of the British Empire, and were very proud of their role in fighting for it and administering it. As recently as the 1950s, Scots voted overwhelmingly Unionist/Conservative.

And when they finally switched in the 1960s, it was to Unionist Labour, which came to see itself, belatedly, as the "national" party of Scotland. Apart from a brief spell in the mid-1970s, Scottish Nationalism has been a politically insignificant force right up until the creation of the devolved Scottish Parliament – which, ironically, they once opposed.

So, under Alex Salmond, the Nationalists have done extraordinarily well to get this far. To be seen as a party of government rather than a party of protest, and to have won the right to hold a referendum on independence, are great achievements. But to change Scotland's ingrained Unionism in little more than a decade was always going to be a very tall order.

I'm not saying that a Yes vote is impossible. I'm one of those clever commentators who said it was impossible for any party to win an absolute majority in the Holyrood parliament and look what happened in 2011. But the Yes campaign needs to realise that a defeat in the referendum would not be the end of the world, and certainly wouldn't be the end of the Scottish National Party.

If Scotland does vote No in October 2014, there is every chance that the country's voters will continue to vote for the SNP in the subsequent Holyrood elections. Why wouldn't they? The Nationalists still look the most effective party of government in Holyrood and remain guardians for all those policies, such as free higher education tuition fees, which Labour once supported but are now talking about scrapping.

The SNP are putting their faith in the Westminster Coalition delivering votes for independence by pushing through draconian welfare cuts, renegotiating Britain's membership of the EU, and generally being led by upper-class English Tories. But this is far from guaranteed. There is little actual evidence that the Scots oppose the welfare benefits cap, and almost as many Scots as English say they want to leave the EU.

And there is a further problem: the Tories themselves could be on their way out in 2014. David Cameron may still lead Ed Miliband in popularity, but Labour are pulling ahead in the polls on voting intention, and if the economy doesn't improve pretty dramatically, it is unlikely that the Tories will be able to form another government in 2015, especially if the Liberal Democrats refuse to play. By 2014, it might look as if the future in the UK is Labour, and this could undermine the argument that only independence can insulate Scotland from Tory policies.

Of course, it is impossible to predict what will happen in the next 22 months. The SNP may persuade Scots that so little will change after independence – because they promise to keep the pound, the Queen, the "social union" etc – that Scots will vote for independence rather as they did in 1997 for the Scottish Parliament. On the other hand, voters may say: "Well, if so little is changed, what's the point of voting Yes?"

All we know is that this is going to be a very difficult year for the Yes campaign. But Nationalists can say one thing with confidence as they begin 2013: whatever happens, the SNP is no joke.

Whether the speeches are more serious debate or stand-up comedy, this year politicians will wax lyrical over independence – but will ordinary Scots be left tongue-tied? By Iain Macwhirter

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