Alex Salmond's decision to make the independence referendum the centrepiece of the SNP's pitch for next year's Holyrood elections surely demonstrates that the party's manifesto is unlikely to feature any radical new ideas. Instead, the Nationalists will rely on the unpopularity of the Westminster coalition and the imposition of its "London cuts", and will use that negative image to promote a more positive message of independence and financial powers for Scotland.
Yesterday's announcement of the Scottish Parliament's legislative programme underpins this; little of real import, and certainly nothing to set the heather alight or change the fabric of the nation, but instead a largely anodyne Bill of fare designed to pave the way for the election campaign generally and the independence aspect in particular.
Of course, as stated here previously this is a high stakes gamble for Mr Salmond. The public must be sufficiently disenchanted with the Westminster Coalition to buy it and at least make him the leader of the largest party in Holyrood next May. Otherwise, Alex Salmond is finished.
Thus the big question is, will the public buy it? No doubt they will be disenchanted with cuts in public spending, but whether this translates into votes for the SNP is another matter. The party's part in the spending spree, the failure of the Scottish Futures Trust, the collapse of the "arc of prosperity" and several other matters calling into question Alex Salmond's economic judgement will all sow doubts in the minds of voters, undermining his emphasis on financial powers for Scotland as part of the independence pitch; in particular, his vision seems to be predicated on more public borrowing to avoid the necessity of spending cuts, which won't necessarily play well with a financially chastened "people of Scotland". And, more generally, although attempting to exploit the financial crisis for Nationalist advantage, the accepted wisdom in the last couple of years has been that the global economic meltdown has spiked the independence movement's guns - better the safe and proven haven of the Union than the unknown risk of Scotland going it alone, however precarious the UK's own financial position might be. The Scottish electorate seems more risk averse than our gambling first minister.
Of course, Scottish Labour - the other main protagonist next May - will similarly hope to exploit the unpopularity of the Westminster coalition in Scotland, however ludicrous its position might be in view of its even more proximate involvement in the spending profligacy that propelled the UK's national debt to stratospheric proportions. And the likelihood of Iain Gray's team proffering a positive and radical platform likely to appeal to the electorate seems even more remote than that of the SNP.
Thus both Labour and the SNP will be hoping the Westminster Coalition's unpopularity in Scotland will detract from a lack of substantive policies likely to attract voters, and thus propel them to power at Holyrood, with the additional goal of a stepping stone towards independence in the case of the Nationalists.
But to realise their aspirations both parties seem likely to rely on negativity towards Westminster rather than a positive programme of government for Scotland. And without substantive policies with electoral appeal, independence remains rooted in abstraction and rhetoric rather than a real vision. The likes of the 2007 carrot of bridge toll abolition may have helped secure votes at a populist level, but the possible 2011 stick of road-tolling and workplace parking levies seems unlikely to be a vote-winner, however much the SNP tries to rationalise the contradiction in terms of fairness and environmental ideals.