The content of the debate on Scottish independence, to date, has largely been about the process of the referendum, rather than the substance of whether Scotland should or should not remain as part of the United Kingdom.
First there was the timing. Westminster tried to push for an early referendum in 2013, but the SNP insisted 2014 would be the date the referendum would be held. Unionist politicians argued the only reason Alex Salmond wants to wait so long is because not only is support for independence currently very low, but he will use 2014 as a year to increase national pride. In 2014 Scotland plays host to the Ryder Cup and Commonwealth Game, and will enjoy its second year of homecoming. Nationalists will also rejoice in the fact it is the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn. Nevertheless, in May David Cameron said he was "not fussed" over the timing of the referendum. So it was eventually agreed that 2014 will be the date for the vote.
Then it was the question. The SNP's proposed question is:
Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?
Unionists retorted immediately claimed this is a biased and leading question. It is hard to disagree with this. Not only have many experts advised against the use of this question, but pro-union politicians (who are expected to offer an alternative question within the next couple of weeks) were also keen to point out question 8b. from the 2003 GCSE Mathematics paper. It reads:
Mary is carrying out an investigation into the cost of food at her college canteen. She asks people in the queue for canteen food:
“Do you agree that canteen food is value for money?”
(a) Why is her sample of people likely to be biased?
(b) Why is her question biased?
But now Westminster have said they will let the SNP propose this question to the Electoral Commission, and will allow this question to be on the ballot paper. The question will be tested by the Electoral Commission, who will then give their recommendation to the Scottish government. This will not be legally binding, but it will be very difficult politically to go against it.
The debate about whether or not 16/17 year olds should be allowed the vote was another sticking point. The SNP want this age group to vote (perhaps because support for separation is highest among this demographic), while the coalition argued that only those allowed to vote in Scottish parliamentary elections should be given the vote (i.e. the same franchise that voted SNP in May 2011, which therefore excludes 16/17 year olds from receiving a vote). Recently, however, Westminster have backed down on this issue too, with David Cameron saying that 16/17 year olds can get the vote.
The one area where Westminster politicians will NOT negotiate on, however, is Salmond's wish to include a third alternative on the ballot paper - the devo-max position (which he recently described as "very attractive"). Although officially the SNP want a one question referendum, Salmond has strongly hinted he wants devo-max to be offered to voters. Unfortunately for him this is the one thing he will not get.
So now there is a stalemate. The SNP are accusing Westminster of "interfering." But they would do well to remember that constitutional matters are reserved to Westminster. Scots voters knew this in the 2010 general election and returned 53 unionist MPs. Any claim that the British government should play no part in the process would be laughable were this not a serious debate.
There is now speculation that the referendum will not go ahead. Polls have consistently shown that Scots wish to remain as a crucial partner within the United Kingdom. Salmond knows this. This is why he wants a multi-option referendum. Put it this way, if there is a yes-no question and, as the evidence overwhelmingly suggests, Scotland does vote to stay in the UK, it puts the SNP in a very awkward position.
The only way for Alex Salmond to avoid admitting defeat is if he calls for a referendum himself and includes a third option. Given this would be illegal, Westminster would challenge it in the courts and would be almost certain to win. But by the time the whole process is dragged through the appropriate legal proceedings it will be too late to hold the referendum. Salmond can then play the victim card and say the vote did not go ahead because "London was dictating the referendum."
The whole issue is very ironic. Pro-union politicians, who want to keep Scotland in the United Kingdom, find themselves having to press an in-out vote on Alex Salmond, someone who's whole political career has been dedicated to the cause of Scottish independence.
UPDATE (15th October, 2012): The Edinburgh Agreement agreement between Westminister and Holyrood means that the Electoral Commission will manage the referendum and test the proposed question, and later come back with a recommendation. Holyrood are not legally required to take the Electoral Commission's recommendation, although it would be politically very difficult for the SNP to ignore their advice as they would then be seen as the party that was trying to rig the referendum.
UPDATE (30th January 2013): The Electoral Commission, unsurprisingly, argued the SNP's proposed question was a leading one and may encourage voters to agree. Thus, it would allow the SNP a marginal gain in the referendum. To increase objectivity they recommended a more neutral question, as follows should be asked: