The possibility of a two-question referendum on independence for Scotland, which would allow a vote for increased powers for the Scottish Parliament as opposed to independence or the status quo, appears to have been abandoned with Alex Salmond conceding to the UK Government's insistence in a simple Yes/No vote.
Mr Salmond won the 2011 Holyrood election on a manifesto that pledged to hold a referendum in the lifetime of the current Parliament. At the time there was no popular demand for a second question. However, as polls consistently showed that opinion was fairly evenly divided among support for independence, for increased powers for the Scottish Parliament and retaining the current devolution settlement, the case grew for putting all three options to the vote.
The First Minister, although consistently declaring a personal preference for a single question leading to a decisive vote in favour of independence, stated that it would be his duty to include a maximum devolution option if there was a groundswell of opinion behind increased powers.
Because the simplest way to make the referendum legally binding is for Westminster to transfer the power to hold it to Edinburgh, the UK Government has insisted on a single question as a condition of the arrangement.
Mr Salmond's refusal to rule out a second question left him open to the charge of hedging his bets. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, he appears to have conceded to a single question, citing the UK Government's unwillingness to offer the option of fiscal autonomy.
As civic Scotland, in the form of voluntary organisations, charities and trade unions, has made the case for devo-max, including that option would provide a way of reflecting the form of government most favoured by people not aligned to political parties. It would pose some technical problems but these would not be insuperable.
Mr Salmond made an early rallying call to people who support more economic powers "but find that the UK Government is stopping them being able to move forward" by suggesting they would want a change. David Cameron has already indicated that, in the event of a No vote, he would grant more powers to Holyrood. Although the extent of the transfer remains unspecified and Tory prime ministers have unfortunate form here, it may persuade some supporters of further devolution to vote No rather than Yes.
Talks between Nicola Sturgeon and Scottish Secretary Michael Moore on the referendum format appear close to agreement but, with the Scottish Government due to publish the responses to its consultation on the referendum next month, Mr Salmond risks appearing to have jumped the gun. By doing so in a US newspaper he provided ammunition for a charge of discourtesy which might stick to a normally adept politician. These are unnecessary distractions. The people of Scotland are keen to engage with the substance of how independence would be negotiated and exactly what it would mean and that is where debate should be focused, with the onus on the SNP to clarify the contentious issues.
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