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Yes-vote roadshow: a sales pitch or a public flogging?

Tony Blair called it his "masochism strategy".

During the run-up to the 2005 General Election campaign, the then PM toured Britain exposing himself to relentless criticism in public forums. It was a kind of atonement for the Iraq war which by then had of course turned into a nightmare. But the PM survived, and went on to win in 2005.

Now Alex Salmond has devised his own collective version of the masochism strategy. He and the Scottish cabinet are to hold public meetings on a monthly basis around the country, taking flak from interest groups, voluntary organisations, business associations and anyone around who happens to have a grievance. It is called taking the White Paper, Scotland's Future, to the country.

Since its launch last month, 50,000 copies have been downloaded, although it is unclear how many have actually read it. Or been persuaded by it. One opinion poll this week suggested that, while support for independence has very marginally increased, most Scots don't seem to have been influenced much either way by the 670-page independence "Bible".

But the First Minister isn't content to leave it there. Mr Salmond and his apostles are taking the word to the people, whether they like it or not. The tour began on Tuesday at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre where he and his team faced what is claimed to be the largest single gathering of that amorphous and ill-defined body usually called "civic Scotland". I was asked to act as an independent "facilitator" and agreed, mainly because I wanted to see what civic Scotland actually looks like.

Well, it seems to mean everyone from the Muslim Women's Resource Centre to LGBT Scotland; the Institute of Directors (IoD) to the Unite trades union; Police Scotland to Creative Scotland. All the Scottish universities were represented, most local authorities, along with the British Council, the Bishops Conference, the Iona Community, the Law Society, even Abused Men in Scotland.

If this is indeed what "Scottish civic society" looks like, I was inclined to paraphrase Wellington: I don't know about the cabinet, but they sure as hell frightened me. This was public masochism of a very high order, potentially, because nearly all of the 350 invited representatives had, by definition, a grievance.

I can testify there was no stage management and no pre-match fixing of questions. Opposition parties weren't invited and the press watched on screens outside - but the ministers made themselves available for questioning afterwards. They did their best within the constraints of a large hall to answer every point that was raised, though few of the questioners were happy with the answers.

Politicians are of course adept at managing Town Hall-type events and at avoiding answering awkward questions. Such as what would happen if the UK were to somehow try to prevent Scotland using the pound after independence. This can lead to what we in the business call a dialogue of the deaf.

The group most obviously discontented were the business interests, the IoD who asked why there were no costings in the White Paper for the various "wish list" policies offered, including the free child care pledge. They left feeling none the wiser.

IoD chairman Ian McKay is a former director of the Royal Mail Group which the Scottish Government has pledged to renationalise after independence. How could you renationalise the Scottish end of an integrated UK company registered on the stock exchange of another country, he asked? Mr Salmond said an independent Scotland could demand its share of the assets of Royal Mail. But how much would the renationalisation cost? Surely the Scottish Government must have some ballpark idea of what renationalisation would cost?

To all those questions, the reply is, essentially, that Independence Will Provide. The economic policies of self-government will deliver the growth to pay for the policies. Like child care: the 100,000 mothers Nicola Sturgeon hopes will enter the workplace after independence will pay, through their taxes, for the policies that have liberated them from the kitchen sink.

The problem here is that the policy will have to be in place before the women can enter the workplace, which implies at the very least a temporary, upfront increase in spending to meet the £600 million cost. Others in the room, particularly women's' groups, wondered why - if the policy is such a good idea - the Scottish Government didn't just introduce it tomorrow, since Holyrood already has the power to increase child care provision.

But everyone thinks they are a special case. Disability groups wanted more attention, as did representatives of young people. If all the spending pledges made by the Scottish Cabinet were added up, the Scottish budget would go ballistic. Which led one questioner to ask why the Scottish Government didn't just come out with it and say that, if we are to have Nordic-style society, maybe we should pay Nordic-style taxes. In Norway, top tax rates are around 62%.

But as Mr Blair himself realised, pledging to increase taxes is the surest way to lose elections, and, like him, Mr Salmond has pledged not to raise basic-rate income tax if the SNP are elected as the government of an independent Scotland.

The First Minister was his usual relaxed self at this gathering, almost laid back. He repeated his line that it is not just the referendum result that matters; but the manner in which the debate is conducted. Better Together sense defeatism behind that magnanimity, and say Mr Salmond is just trying to pre-manage a No vote.

Certainly, seeing the entire cabinet arrive with their retinues, plus the press people and organisers of the event, was something of an eye-opener. Mingling before the debate, I kept finding I was actually talking to government or quango employees of one kind or another.

Being in government changes politicians because they become part of a machine that both assists them and cuts them off from the coalface of politics, where hands get dirty and the language is less than elegant. The Scottish cabinet is now a sleek administration of professional ministers, accustomed to power and influence and accompanied by a legion of bright civil servants. It has lost that ragged urgency of 2007, when a party of political outsiders scraped to office for the first time in the SNP's history.

Perhaps they will get ragged as they flog themselves around the country over the next nine months. Or perhaps it will turn into a celebrity roadshow. Ministers would, of course, like to win the independence referendum; but they don't want to lose office either. That's one kind of masochism they don't want.

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