IT was the day on which Samuel Johnson was born and Jimi Hendrix died but from now on it will be etched on the minds of Scottish voters as the day in 2014 when they decide on their nation's future: September 18.
After finding out who would be able to vote and the question they would be given to answer, the timing of the poll was the final remaining procedural detail to put into place. With placards scattered across Scotland, apprentice welders etching the date on a steel plate and MSPs tweeting the momentous date en masse, the Yes campaign did its best to create a sense of occasion yesterday as the First Minister finally named the day. The choice was a surprise, partly because it was an extremely well-kept secret. It had been widely assumed that a date in October had been earmarked. There was also talk of holding the poll on a Saturday in the hope of increasing the turnout for such a life-changing vote.
The choice of Thursday, September 18 seems a sensible one, largely because it is hard to envisage the Electoral Commission finding any possible objection to it. It holds no particular connotations, Nationalist or otherwise. Thursday is the day when polls are held traditionally in Scotland. A Saturday vote (with a Sunday count), as favoured by The Herald, apparently risked raising objections from religious groups. September, when the evenings are still reasonably light and the clocks have yet to go back, was also chosen for the poll on devolution in 1997. It has the additional advantage of avoiding the school holidays that are sprinkled through October.
Politically speaking, for the Yes campaign, it places the event before the distraction of the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles and in what it hopes will be the patriotic afterglow of the Glasgow Commonwealth Games, in which Scotland will compete as before as a discrete nation. That in turn follows the 700th anniversary of Scotland's famous victory over the English at Bannockburn. And it will be over before the party conference season, which could be a platform for pro-UK sentiment.
With set piece debates this week on key issues such as Iraq, Trident and the possibility of a second oil boom, the SNP is attempting to seize the initiative in the run-up to Mr Salmond's conference speech to his party faithful on Saturday. However, though he claims the choice facing the Scottish people "becomes clearer every day", it is certainly not becoming clearer to voters. Recent polls suggest his lobby faces a significant deficit in the polls, with support for independence nearly 20 points behind the No camp. To date, discussion about issues including the currency, the economic health of an independent Scotland, North Sea oil revenues, a Scottish defence force, intelligence sharing, the nuclear deterrent and the terms on which Scotland would be a member of the EU have all generated more heat than light. According to Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont, the Yes camp would be routed if the referendum were held now. But much could change as the two sides set out their stalls.
At least it can be said that all the procedural wrangling around this poll is over. The Herald undertakes rigorously to scrutinise the arguments on both sides in this potentially epoch-defining referendum. The clock is counting down.
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