Posing the question

A remarkable day. Do forgive me for being a mite tardy with the blog. Things to do, people to see - including the First Minister, both at Holyrood and later at Edinburgh Castle.

So where are we now? We have Alex Salmond's proposed question - "do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?"

We have the continuing controversy over whether there should be a second question on devo max. We have the concession from the FM on using the Electoral Commission - with Mr Salmond insisting, in the face of opposition questioning, that the Commission would have a role in scrutinising the wording of the ballot paper.

But where are we, truly? At the outset of a consultation process: indeed two, given that the Scottish Secretary Michael Moore has already launched a document of his own.

And at the outset of negotiations between the Scottish and UK governments - slightly deferred in that this Friday's meeting between Mr Salmond and Mr Moore has had to be postponed as the Scottish Secretary has succumbed to chicken pox. Our best wishes to him for a speedy recovery.

Why do we need those negotiations? What happened to the Scottish Government's insistence that they were in charge of the process, that they would determine the date and the questions to be asked? What happened to the advice to Westminster to "butt out".

Tactical change

Mr Salmond is still stressing, very vigorously, that he is in command - or, more precisely, taking charge in the interests of the sovereign Scottish people.

But there is clear evidence of substantive and tactical change in the attitude adopted by the Edinburgh team.

Firstly, their independence question has changed - from an earlier, looser version which talked of mandating negotiations with the UK with a view to Scotland become independent.

Mr Salmond accepts that the new, sharper version would require UK sanction in the form of a Section 30 transfer of legal powers to Holyrood.

Plainly, then, he wants that - while retaining the option of reverting to a form of the earlier wording should unacceptable conditions be attached to that transfer of power.

Secondly, the putative second question on devo max is treated in a different way. No longer does it feature in the draft Bill as it did in the February 2010.

Now, it is even more evident that Mr Salmond wants others to generate such a question - and its possible treatment in a referendum. In that respect, a new civic Scotland campaign will be launched on Monday.

More, Scottish Ministers are no longer simply talking of putting that devo max question in sequence with independence - such that one builds upon the other. That option was much criticised by those who said that devo max could massively outpoll independence - and yet both would go ahead if independence managed to achieve 51 per cent support.

Paving question

Now, it is conceivable that devo max might be placed in competition with independence, perhaps with a paving opening question asking whether folk want change at all. That would allow adherence to the status quo to be tracked.

UK Ministers - indeed all of Mr Salmond's principal political opponents - say no to a double question. Regardless of the intellectual attraction of devo max to some, notably the Liberal Democrats, they are united in arguing that the issue of independence must be settled, without "muddying the waters" as the Advocate General Lord Wallace put it tonight.

Which leaves us where? With Mr Salmond insisting upon an autumn 2014 poll. And UK Ministers insisting upon a single question.

Is it just conceivable that there could be a trade off there? Mr Salmond gets his simple straightforward independence question. In 2014. He gets legal sanction for it from Westminster. But, in return for that legal sanction, he restricts the referendum to that single question, eschewing devo max.

The upside for Unionist opinion? They get the clear, decisive referendum they want. The downside? They have to concede the date.

The downside for Mr Salmond? He loses the prospect of an alternative fall-back question which might, arguably, divide the Unionist camp.

The upside? He gets a watertight ballot. And he can seek to blame his Unionist opponents for the absence of a devo max option.