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Why Better Together must be better at campaigning

When the Scottish government launched its white paper, Scotland's Future, opponents were off their marks quicker than Keystone Kops.

Demonstrating speed-reading skills that would shame a footballer's agent, they assured us there wasn't a line worth reading in 670 long pages of assertion and assumption.

Those Unionists overstated the case a little. Whatever its faults, the document contains 650 questions and 650 answers. Whether you are satisfied by the answers is a matter of taste or allegiance. Whether you will ever be satisfied by anything the SNP could say about independence is one reason why we're having an argument.

That, in turn, is the self-evident explanation for the importance of the year ahead. In September, Scotland will make up its mind about the United Kingdom. That's it; that's the story. The SNP's descriptions of what might follow a Yes vote, precise or imprecise, amount to 650 secondary issues. Alex Salmond's government has sketched a map of its desires, nothing more.

Unionists know this. They also know that incessant demands for clarity and detail amount to the kind of test no one can pass. That's why demands are made. Anyone capable of predicting the future wouldn't waste time on politics, or bother listening to politicians. Nevertheless, the species is wedded to negative campaigning. So Better Together, an increasingly ramshackle alliance, presses on.

Its factions are entitled, of course, to raise any doubt that comes to mind. They are also entitled to say you can't ask voters to make a momentous decision without an inkling of the likely consequences. Even if you grant that the future is unknowable, you must give the voters a few clues. That's life. What might happen, we ask ourselves, if I make this choice?

So what might happen if a majority vote No? That's as important, surely, as information on the consequences of an independence upheaval. If you happen to detest what is being done daily by the coalition government it matters more, perhaps, than a bet on Scotland's wealth and talent. Where will we stand if independence is rejected? How about some detail? It needn't involve 650 answers. Half a dozen would do.

An obvious parallel would be the "in-out" referendum on Europe that obsesses parts of the Conservative Party. Let's say David Cameron is backed into a corner and one day proceeds with that plebiscite. Is it credible that any of us should make such a choice while one side says nothing about the consequences of the decision?

While Tories snipe at their Labour partners, while Mr Cameron feels a need to defend Alistair Darling, the silence from Better Together is almost surreal. It might be that the campaign is so riven by dissension that no common position is possible. It might be that no one has come up with a coherent answer, that Better Together is purely destructive. It might be that Unionists dare not speak the truth.

If the accusations levelled at the Yes campaign have any merit, that won't do. To restamp a cliche, voters have a right to know. Those who vote No, in particular, are entitled to be told about the future of the UK. The "most successful economic and political union in the history of the world" - it says on the tin - should be capable of a few remarks. Anything less would be disrespectful, not to say rude.

It will also be impractical to attempt to preserve omerta for eight months and 18 days. Many of those involved have failed utterly to understand the nature of this campaign. They persist in believing it is merely party-political. They continue to act as though it will be settled in a week or month. Waging a phoney war all the way to September 18 would be stupid and insulting.

The vague defence of Better Together is that its purpose is to destroy the arguments for independence, not to engage in a debate over the aftermath. The latter, you are told, is what Mr Salmond wants. Why grant his wish? He was the one who led the charge for "secession". The point is to deal with that - and him - before proceeding to other matters.

But no: this is a binary argument. Mr Cameron insisted on it. If the case for Yes is to be interrogated because of what it might mean for communities, families and lives, what exempts the case of No? In honour, in honesty, in practical terms, the Better Together parties have to come up with something or an electorate thirsting to be informed might wonder, reasonably enough, what is going on.

Some commentators talk as though "more powers" for Holyrood will follow a No vote inevitably. Those of us who remember the 1979 referendum know better. Alec Douglas-Home, another of those Etonian grandees, was happy to promise something better (he too was vague) if Labour's plan was defeated. That assurance was accepted too often amid an extraordinary vote-rigging exercise. Is there more good faith around now than in 1979?

Let's imagine there is. Where would that get us if we vote No in September 2014? Better Together can't or won't say. Tavish Scott, former Scottish Lib Dem leader, has returned to promoting the inelegantly named Devo Plus, a scheme involving enhanced taxation powers for Holyrood to match its spending responsibilities and allow "flexibility" in economic policy.

It's a play-with-your-toys scheme, an idea that treats a country as a local government area. It ensures that real control of the Scottish economy would remain in London. It neither resolves existing issues, nor ensures that a future Holyrood government would be content with constraints. It is a variation on the "best of both worlds" theme, with "best" still defined as a take-it-or-leave-it offer.

So dream on. What of Devo Max, "full fiscal autonomy"? That, too, is supposed to still the demand for self-determination without rending - you can pick an image - the UK asunder. Some believe the SNP could live with it. What about the rest of the UK, especially an English North left to watch Scots tinker with taxation? Devo Max is a scheme that would shake up the constitutional jigsaw in a manner no London government would ever find congenial.

Do you then cut the number of Scottish MPs again as a consequence and/or restrict their voting rights? Nice for the Tories, less so for Labour. In all of these plans, in any case, the old West Lothian question lurks. And what of the great issues of war, peace, Trident, or the NHS? The idea that Scotland could have divergent "de facto independence" while in any real sense the UK endured is a fiction.

So the Better Together parties hesitate. They will have to come up with some sort of answer to the SNP's white paper, but a dissertation on crumbs from the table will not entrance the undecided. In 2014, a lot of talk about Britishness will be heard instead. Fine, if you have the taste, but that taste had best not involve a desire for certainty or facts.

The big picture is about to start. For a nervous Better Together, 2014 will be the year of living dangerously. I intend to remember it as my favourite year.

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