The shadow boxing over the independence referendum is over, and the trial of strength over when and how it will be held has begun. The UK Government's consultation paper, and the SNP administration's counter-salvo with its intended date of autumn 2014, sees the battle for the hearts and minds of the electorate begin in earnest.
Quite a lot of newspaper column inches, and political hot air, could have been saved if parties and leaders had given proper weight from the outset to basic principle, and less to party advantage. So there was really no reason, once the SNP's win last May settled the question of whether to have a referendum, not to push ahead and have the debate aired and the vote taken, say around the same time this year. After all the First Minister spent his time after taking office in 2007, challenging the other parties to call a referendum, so what reason was there to delay this time round? However the UK parties lost the chance to play him at his own game, so we are where we are.
As to whether the devolved Government could legally hold a poll on its own, there is surely a lot of bluff involved in the SNP's position that it could. As has been pointed out, there would be no point in doing so unless to seek a result that could be presented as a mandate for independence, something clearly beyond Holyrood's powers in relation to enabling legislation. Calling it "consultative" or similar is beside the point.
And if it is beyond the devolved Parliament's power, it is also bluff for the SNP to claim it has a mandate to decide the date, or the question(s), or the entitlement to vote, since we were not voting last year to choose anyone to make such decisions.
That said, it would be inept politically for Westminster to pretend that Holyrood or the Scottish Government has no say in the matter. With the initiative having been conceded to the SNP over timing, it arguably makes sense to go with their now-expressed choice of date (another interesting question whether this represents a throwing down of the gauntlet or a recognition that they were being pinned down), but to insist that other arrangements, in particular the franchise, should equate to those for a Scottish parliamentary election. Again the franchise point (i.e. not allowing 16 and 17-year-olds to vote, despite the SNP's demand) seems right as a matter of principle, as does retaining the Electoral Commission's supervisory role.
And the question(s) to be posed? The problem with introducing any third option, concerning further devolved powers, is how to give people a clear idea of what they are voting about, unless a bill, or at least a detailed white paper, is already in existence. It could be done, and it is an open question whether a "yes" vote to that option would be more or less likely to pave the way for ultimate independence. My own view, however, is that devolution (as a UK-wide topic) is now here to stay, and will not be killed off from the political agenda by a "no" vote to independence, if that should come about. I can readily foresee Holyrood acquiring greater powers in any event. There seems no need, therefore, to distract attention from the main question – and there are plenty of issues still to be fleshed out in relation to what independence would actually mean for currency, EU and NATO membership, armed forces, and much more, in addition to where Scotland's national interest actually lies.
Something tells me that we will be returning to the referendum topic quite regularly for the foreseeable future.