Alex Salmond may have described the past year as a "phoney war" and "clearing the ground" before the referendum campaign proper this week, but as he dashes from the launch of Rural Better Together at the Royal Highland Show, former Labour chancellor Alistair Darling isn't buying it.

When Salmond says the Yes campaign hasn't really started, he really means he's losing, says the chair of the No campaign.

"It is quite incredible that Alex Salmond is prepared to write off the first year of a campaign that he has waited his entire political life for," he says.

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"No matter how much he sticks his fingers in his ears and pretends everything is fine, the fact remains that people in Scotland are becoming increasingly sceptical about the case for breaking up the United Kingdom."

Far from being phoney, he says, the war has been very real and full of political battles the SNP have lost.

He cites last year's climbdown over an independent Scotland having to negotiate EU entry rather than it being automatic and the revelation that, despite Salmond's impression to the contrary, the SNP Government never had legal advice on the point.

"Whether it's on currency, pensions, welfare or Europe, Alex Salmond is simply unable to give credible answers about what will happen if we decide to go it alone," Darling says.

"The past 12 months have shown that on all of the big issues more and more people realise we're stronger and better together."

Better Together campaign director Blair McDougall, says the phoney war comment was "a bit of compliment to us and maybe an insult to Yes Scotland", the pro-independence campaign which has failed to move the polls its way over the past year.

As Better Together marks its first anniversary this weekend, McDougall, a 34-year-old Labour apparatchik from Glasgow, said a key feature of year one has been declining SNP confidence.

"All the public polling that's out there shows that since Yes Scotland has launched and since we've launched, support for the UK is up and support for leaving is down," he says. "The great challenge for us is making sure that confidence doesn't become complacency."

McDougall's confidence is boundless. He can't really think of anything that's gone wrong, and dismisses Better Together's worst period – an intense row over the ethics of its biggest donor, Vitol boss Ian Taylor – as "a storm in a tea cup".

Far more troubling, he claims, were the times he glimpsed the true nature of the SNP beast.

"There have been moments where I've thought, 'Jesus, there's literally nothing these guys won't do'. For example, the EU legal advice stuff, having a court case to cover up the fact that your man had lied is pretty hard going.

"I understand why. This is their moment. But those are the things that stick in the mind as worrying moments, when they've shown their utterly ruthless commitment to this cause."

He's equally scathing about what the SNP see as one of their trump cards in the referendum debate – the Coalition's welfare reforms.

"I grew up in a single-parent family on disability benefits," he says. "Welfare reform is complex and costly, and you have to have policy because this is about real people's lives. The thing that's distasteful about what the Nats have been doing is that they're playing politics without any policy."

Although the past year has been good to the campaign in the polls, it hasn't been all sweetness and light for the Unionists. Many in Labour are deeply unhappy at being in an alliance with the Tories.

Harry Donaldson, Scottish secretary of the GMB, told the union's conference this month that siding with the Coalition "would betray all we stand for", and that its presence in Better Together was "an own goal by the Labour Party in Scotland".

McDougall, a Labour member for half his life, says he understands why some find it "novel and strange" to align with the Tories, but that a cross-party campaign is "a legal necessity".

He adds: "We don't pretend we're all holding hands and singing Kumbaya. We are three parties who bitterly disagree on where Scotland and Britain should go ... we just happen to agree on this single policy."

But asked how he felt when Darling got a standing ovation at the Scottish Tory conference a fortnight ago, he repeatedly ducks the question, before offering: "I was encouraged the parties think Alistair and the campaign are doing a good job."

One of the charges against Better Together is that it is unremittingly negative, preferring to pose endless questions of the Yes side, rather than sell the benefits of the UK.

Privately, some inside Better Together even refer to the organisation as Project Fear. McDougall is unrepentant about the tactics.

"When they [Nationalists] say that, it's code for, 'Shut up and stop asking questions'. Obviously we're not going to do that.

"The other thing about the negativity charge is that, if you look at what we're doing and the output of the campaign, it's just not true."

But SNP MSP Annabelle Ewing says Better Together's "first instinct is always to talk Scotland down".

"Of course there are legitimate questions in what should be a great debate over our constitutional future, " she says, "but you reduce the level of that debate, and treat people like fools, when you resort to these tactics.

"The people of Scotland deserve an open and honest debate based on facts, and we are confident it will lead to a Yes vote in next year's independence referendum."

Things are set to heat up this autumn. As the campaign enters its final year in September, and the SNP Government publishes its white paper on the mechanics of independence around November, Better Together plans "a pretty big offensive", McDougall says.

Top priority will be trashing the white paper, or "testing its credibility", as he puts it. "If you published an election manifesto and it wasn't costed, you would rightly be torn to shreds. They need to pass at least as stringent a test."

But independence isn't for five years, so how could the Government produce costings?

"Well, if it's possible for John Swinney and Alex Salmond to make commitments on pensions and youth unemployment, then they need to cost those policies," he huffs.

"If they can't even give us, for example, how much the pensions policy will cost over an economic cycle, then people are just not going to believe they're real commitments."

And how long is the average economic cycle? "Well, that's a, eh, eh, that's a how long is a piece of string question." Quite.

In other words, Better Together will set the SNP impossible tests, then fail them.

It's a strategy that's worked for the last 12 months. Don't expect any change in year two.