Ironically for the unionist parties, the independence debate opens up the unique opportunity for them to find a distinct Scottish voice. But first they must put their own partisan paranoia to one side to work together on that one common cause of saving the Union.
Ever since the SNP won the election last May, the other mainstream parties, left decimated in the wake of the powerful Nationalist machine, have been struggling to find a reason for being.
Excused their political paralysis in terms of putting up any effective opposition against a majority SNP government by their lack of leadership, a tangible disbelief over their individual political ignominy and their inability to organise, they have allowed time and tide to pass them by and they need to catch up fast.
David Cameron may have unexpectedly done his bit to accelerate the referendum race four weeks ago when he announced it was game on but his party in Scotland has done little to further the cause. Ruth Davidson previously claimed there was a line in the devolution sand but now accepts that the earth has shifted a little. And with Cameron floating the idea of more powers but unable to name any, the Tories need to get a grip.
They have a mountain to climb at the best of times in terms of convincing anyone of their dedication to Scotland – memories remain long – so they need to get the language right or else prove Salmond right that they remain a powerful weapon of pro-independence.
Of the three opposition leaders, Willie Rennie holds the strongest ideological card to constitutional change. As federalists, Lib Dems have long believed in not only extended powers for the Scottish Parliament but for a radical overhaul of the constitutional settlement for the whole of the UK. As such, they should be leading the referendum charge and yet they are allowing themselves to be viewed as little more than a pawn of Westminster with Michael Moore as Cameron’s whipping boy sent to Scotland to gift us a referendum with strings attached.
Their saving grace is Rennie who as a leader of just five Lib Dems in the Scottish Parliament could easily have been relegated to the political fringes but by opening discussions with both the Tories and Labour on finding a consensual way forward, he is trying to remain politically relevant, positioning himself ahead of the constitutional curve.
But it is the Labour Party that will have to lead the anti-independence storm and Johann Lamont resorted to type when she was quick to dismiss the prospect of colluding with the Tories to take one for the country. It’s illogical. Labour believes one of the reasons it lost the last Scottish election was because it didn’t appear Scottish enough.
The Lib Dems lost the argument because their party wasn’t ideological enough, having got into bed with the Tories down south and the Conservatives failed to make a mark because well, simply, this is Scotland. These parties need to get back on speaking terms with Scotland and yet seem unable to grasp the thistle. They all believe in one thing – the Union – and yet up until now have seemed terrified that by joining forces they could be ceding ground to the Nationalists by advocating more powers for Scotland.
But as Labour and the Lib Dems gather this weekend for their annual spring conferences they should use the opportunity to reclaim a process they both began.
Labour was the party that delivered devolution to Scotland. It was the party that plugged into the constitutional zeitgeist during the dark days of Tory rule and delivered the Scottish Parliament to the Scottish people as a priority when it returned to government in 1997. It should be lauded for that and yet just over a decade since the historic opening of Holyrood, it is a party cut off at the knees; shattered, directionless and weak in the face of the SNP steamroller.
But with local government elections just around the corner, it needs a galvanizing cause to give it something distinctive to rally round so it can say, ‘I am Labour, I am Scottish and this is how I see Scotland’s future’.
Johann Lamont could hold the key.
Expectation is low but she has a powerful weapon; she favours neither independence nor the status quo and nor would she be viewed as an arch unionist. That is where the majority of Scots sit. And that is her electoral advantage. All she needs to do is articulate that.
This conference, Lamont’s first as leader, should be the springboard she needs to make her mark, pull the party out ofthe doldrums and turn the SNP’s thirst for more against it.
Strangely, by opening up the independence debate the unionist parties could discover that picking over the idea of separation actually brings them together.