HERE we go, the big countdown to the New Year.

New York will have its glitter ball, Sydney is set to rocket into 2013 with fireworks, while down in Rio they will be partying on the beach. In Scotland, meanwhile, millions of hearts are sinking faster than a television announcer can say: "And now for our special Hogmanay show ..."

What ails us is not the usual seasonal gloom, although for a nation that punts New Year to the world we don't half get depressed about the event. No, what has us fretting unduly is that 2013 is the big one. Or rather the one before the big one. When Big Ben strikes 12, we will be a year away from the independence referendum. Well, a year and a bit, but let us not be pedantic here. There will be so many other opportunities to engage in that activity.

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If we assume that 2014 itself will be a giddy whirl of hysteria mixed with boredom, war without the tanks, then 2013 becomes the critical period, a time for calm reflection and sober judgment. A time to ask, for example, if it will be Alex Salmond leading the country towards a Yes vote, or someone else.

There we go again, the mischief-making press, sowing the seeds of doubt where there is none. The sooner we have a McLeveson Oversight Panel the better. Still, given the year he has had, it is not unreasonable to wonder whether Mr Salmond is the best placed person to secure a Yes vote.

It has been a long 2012 for the First Minister. While most of it was spent in the state of splendid inaction that the SNP has made its own, the year will be remembered by many for the things that went wrong. The Nato U-turn that divided the party. The apology to the Scottish Parliament for getting his numbers wrong on college funding. Above all, there was the legal advice that never was.

As it turned out, all those assertions that an independent Scotland would not have to apply to rejoin the EU and accept the euro were based on nothing more than hope. Despite what had been suggested often and loudly, there was no specific legal advice on which to base that conclusion. As reassurances go, it was not worth the paper it was not written on.

One wonders if the SNP leadership realise just how much damage was done to the party's standing by that one instance. From here to referendum day, every assertion will be greeted with a version of the Andy Stewart question: not "Donald where's your troosers?" but "Alex, where's your legal advice?" This will be closely followed by "And what outrageous sum did this advice cost the taxpayer?" It is a lose-lose game.

It should be a concern for Mr Salmond because this will be the year not of homecoming, or any of that tartan-swathed nonsense, but of plain old reassurance. First Minister Salmond will have to become Dr Salmond, soothing away all those doubts and fears with a calm word here and a pawky response there.

There is already a queue of patients losing patience, though it is fair to say they are not directing their concerns at Dr Salmond and the SNP alone. In its New Year message, the Scottish Council for Development and Industry urged all Scotland's leaders and policymakers to make economic growth their priority. The Institute of Directors, Scotland, put it more plainly, saying: "The current obsession with our future governance is understandable but not helpful. Right now we have more immediate challenges to face and an economy to build."

Quite, but it is not beyond our wit to do both at the same time. Whatever business would like, it is unrealistic to expect the matter of independence to be put in a box and brought out when there is a spare moment between export drives. Those who have doubts about whether they would remain to do business in an independent Scotland need to hear the arguments as much as the rest of us. In any case, it is taking a parochial view of the world to imagine that Scotland's economic growth depends solely on what is said at Holyrood. No business is an island in this interconnected, multinational-dominated world, and, in general, firms will always care more about profit than politics.

As unwelcome as it may be to those who like their politics to come wrapped in a cashmere cardie, 2013 has to be the year when the independence debate gets scratchy. We are not deciding the winner of Strictly Come Dancing here.

This is not a zero stakes university debate where convention and politeness rules OK. What is happening could have repercussions for generations to come. A little passion is in order. So a few reputations will take some knocks; Scotland can handle it. Scotland is bigger than this debate. If it was not, there would be no point arguing about its future.

Which brings us back to whether Mr Salmond will be, or should be, the arguer-in-chief. That depends on how he handles the three horsemen of the referendum apocalypse coming his way (the fourth horseman, relying on nothing but London-grown media for his information, does not have a Scooby about what is going on and prefers to fret about such burning issues as hosepipe bans).

The first outrider is events, dear boy, events: slings and arrows from Westminster, resignations, parliamentary mishaps, scandals and the rest. Mr Salmond has to drop his "bobby on the beat" approach – move along folks, nothing to see here – and deal with problems in a quicker, more decisive way. The college funding figures fiasco, for one, was pure Holyrood farce to rival anything Whitehall has offered.

The second outrider is the man leading the No campaign, Alistair Darling. Fortunately for Mr Salmond, the former Chancellor can hardly be accused of adopting a Usain Bolt approach to campaigning. While one appreciates this referendum lark is more a marathon than a sprint, it would be nice to see Mr Darling proceeding with slightly more haste than a tortoise with verrucas.

Finally, and predictably, comes the economy. Every announcement, beginning with BAE Systems' plans for its sites at Govan, Scotstoun and Portsmouth, will be a test of the Scottish Government's savvy or otherwise. Forget the honeyed glow of patriotism, it will be cold, hard numbers that decide the outcome of this referendum.

Excited yet? Worry not: like 2013, it will come.