THE Yes and No campaigns have spent the first few days of 2014 arguing about what they should be arguing about.
Sure, the battle to frame the independence debate has always been there in the background, but two recent interventions have served to throw it into sharp relief. First, Labour's shadow international development secretary Jim Murphy entered the fray to attack the SNP's argument that independence is the best way to remove an unpopular Tory-led Government and all it stands for. Then, a day later, Nicola Sturgeon issued a list of 50 questions she said the No side must answer before September's referendum. Their contrasting comments revealed the huge gulf between how the two sides view the debate.
For Mr Murphy and his fellow pro-UK campaigners, the referendum is separate from normal, everyday politics. As he sees it, voters face a narrow, constitutional question on September 18 which - if answered with a Yes - carries unknown and unknowable implications for a newly independent Scotland, its currency arrangements, its terms of EU membership and a host of other fundamental issues. "The Tories can be gone within a year. Independence is forever," is how Mr Murphy summed it up. He described as a Nationalist "foundation myth" the notion that the UK is incapable of being reformed. "If change isn't possible then exit is the only answer. Self-evidently this is nonsensical," he argued, referring to UK innovations from the NHS to Holyrood which have served Scotland well.
Loading article content
If Mr Murphy wants Scots to focus soley on the nuts and bolts of independence - those questions about the currency and EU membership, for example - Nicola Sturgeon is keen that voters don't lose sight of everyday politics, as her list of 50 key questions shows. "What will the VAT rate be in 2016?" she is demanding to know. "How many military personnel will be based in Scotland in 2020?" "What new powers is Holyrood guaranteed in the event of a No vote?" "Can you guarantee Scotland will still be in the EU in 2020 if there's a No vote?" Most of the questions have only one possible answer: Don't know.
It's a careful attempt to create a sense of equivalence between the uncertainties of independence and of staying in the UK. The Deputy First Minister is saying that independence is no riskier than remaining in the UK when you consider some of the day-to-day decisions taken at Westminster. Whether she can convince Scots of that remains to be seen.
There is a difference between the "don't knows" of the Yes and No campaigns. The SNP cannot give definitive answers on issues such as currency arrangements because outcomes would depend on negotiations between an independent Scotland and the rest of the UK. By contrast, the reason Ms Sturgeon's questions to the No campaign cannot be answered is because they are about political decisions which have yet to be taken either by the present or a future UK government.
Ms Sturgeon sees bleak prospects for Scotland. Mr Murphy, as you'd expect, sees a brighter picture under a Labour government. What they are really arguing about, however, is the importance of everyday politics in the independence debate.