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This war is anything but phoney ... and the SNP is losing it

If nothing else, Donside delivered a timely rebuff to Nigel Farage.

His UK Independence Party lost their deposit in the Aberdeen by-election, despite Farage having been given extensive media exposure in the previous week, including the tacit support of George Galloway on the infamous BBC Question Time.

There had been some speculation that Scotland is fertile ground for UKIP's brand of anti-immigration, anti-welfare policies, and that Scots are not as hot on the EU as Alex Salmond says they are. Well, Donside answered that.

There was qualified relief in the SNP camp at their victory, albeit on a greatly reduced majority. The late Brian Adam had built up a 7000-vote lead over Labour in Aberdeen Donside, but this was slashed on Thursday to little more than 2000. Salmond insisted this was a pretty good result for a governing party in mid-term, and it certainly isn't a bad one.

Indeed, given the hammering independence has received in the past few months, over pensions, welfare, EU membership, keeping the pound, and so on, it's perhaps a miracle they held the seat at all.

The result will hearten any SNP MSPs worrying that a No vote in the 2014 referendum could destroy their chances of keeping their seats in the 2016 Scottish parliamentary elections On this showing, it won't.

Alex Salmond is not a defeatist, however. As he made clear last week in his New Statesman interview, he regards this as the "phoney war", and that the referendum campaign hasn't begun in earnest yet. Well, perhaps he should get out more, because there is nothing phoney about the war that's been raging for hearts and minds, and the SNP is losing it. Better Together has been extremely effective in crowding out the independence case in this pre-referendum year, and as Holyrood rises for the summer they are increasingly confident the job is largely done.

The unionists have led the attack, co-ordinating their message with UK government departments and unionist-led parliamentary committees in Westminster.

In January, Defence Secretary Philip Hammond warned about thousands of lost Trident jobs and the incoherence of Nationalist policy on Nato. The Chancellor George Osborne and the UK Treasury then weighed in with a threat to deny Scots use of the pound and even abolish Scottish bank notes after independence.

Iain Duncan Smith repeated his claim that an independent Scotland would not be able to finance current benefit levels.

The House of Lords Economic Committee said it was "entirely fanciful" to believe Scotland would have any influence over the Bank of England or use it as a lender of last resort in a banking crisis. The Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee report identified what it called "worrying gaps in the Scottish Government's foreign policy vision".

The Scottish Government has even been getting rough treatment from its own committees. The expert group set up earlier this year by Nicola Sturgeon to look at welfare administration after independence unhelpfully speculated about the "inevitable disruption" to benefit provision, called on the Scottish Government to stick with the UK system for the time being, and implied Scotland might have to go along with the UK's current unpopular benefit reforms, including the infamous "bedroom tax".

By the time it came for David Cameron to address the Scottish Tory conference earlier this month he was able to say, with some justification, that the unionists had the grown-up arguments – even if the Tories have a Scottish leader, Ruth Davidson, who has to prove her age to get a drink at a Bruce Springsteen concert.

Cameron is an astute politician, and realises negativity alone will not win the referendum, which is why in television interviews and in speeches he has started to talk up the more positive aspects of union.

"We saw it when our soldiers fought together under one flag on the beaches of Normandy," he told the Scottish Conservatives.

"We saw it when our doctors came together to build our NHS - and we saw it last summer as athletes from around Britain, no matter where they were from, draped themselves in one flag".

The PM's critics may point out that the war against Germany is long past, and that the NHS as we know it is being dismantled south of the Border. But the emotional appeal of this "we are family" approach shouldn't be dismissed.

At the very least, this seems to have floored the Yes campaign. Yet nothing that has emerged in the past six months should have come as any surprise. The committee reports were entirely predictable, yet little was done to prepare the ground for them. George Osborne and the Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, are profoundly unpopular figures in Scotland, not least for the Coalition's austerity policies and the welfare reforms. The SNP should have run them out of town, intellectually speaking.

The Nationalists blame the Scottish press, but whether Alex Salmond likes it or not, Westminster committee reports and the statements of UK ministers are news. It should not have been impossible for the SNP, with all the resources of the Scottish Government at their disposal, to have organised an effective rebuttal campaign against these interventions, much in the way Labour in the early 1990s managed to win the argument against a hostile UK press. The SNP have been very effective in news management in the past.

It can't all be down to the loss of legendary Nationalist spin doctor Kevin Pringle from the frontline. Nor the rifts between the Yes Scotland campaign and the SNP, which led to the chairman of the former, Dennis Canavan, openly criticising SNP policy on a Scottish currency.

Nor can the Nationalists simply argue that because the UK government won't enter negotiations, they cannot give any answers about the post-independence world. That should be an opportunity for the SNP to paint a rosy picture of life after Britain, and defy the UK government to disprove it.

Scotland is a rich country with huge natural resources and would, as Professor John Kay of the London School of Economics, said last week, have no trouble running its own economic affairs. But the Scots still remain to be convinced that it would be worth all the trouble of breaking up Britain.

The negativity of the Better Together campaign has been almost laughable at times, and yet the Nationalists have not managed to neutralise their propagandising. The Yes campaign will have to come up with a new approach if it really wants to win in September 2014. They can't leave it all to Alex.

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