First of all, let's look at what Nick Clegg actually said when he came up to Scotland yesterday:
“I would describe myself as a devolutionist, someone who believes in a strong Scotland, in a strong United Kingdom, but where Scotland increasingly takes on more and more of its own powers and responsibilities.
“All the evidence suggests that is the mainstream of opinion and the extremists are those who either think that we need to yank Scotland out of the United Kingdom tomorrow, or those who say there should be no further change at all,” Mr Clegg said.“Well, I don’t agree with either of those two extremes.
“I and my party are very much situated in the centre ground of Scottish public opinion, which says let’s retain the strengths of being part of the United Kingdom because we are stronger together and weaker apart in a very uncertain world.
“But, within that, give Scotland more and more authority and power to do its own thing.”It all sounds pretty reasonable to me.
You see, tearing apart the UK is not just something simple that can be achieved in a few seconds, like pulling off a sticking plaster. I'm not saying that it can't be done, but the SNP are strong on rhetoric but light on the detail. And if you look at the options available for Scotland's future governance, there is no arguing that independence is not one of the extremes. I mean, you can't actually go beyond it, can you?
It's so much easier for the lazy SNP press officer to jump up in horror and complain that the nasty great unionist oppressor is calling them names than it is to actually explain how an independent Scotland would work, and be achieved. I mean how exactly do you divvy up the pensions system, the benefits system and set up new equivalents in Scotland? How do you police Scotland's new border? What about defence? We all remember Inverclyde SNP candidate Anne McLaughlin not having the first clue about how many air bases an independent Scotland would have.
The fact that the SNP have had literally decades to work this stuff out and aren't sharing the results of their deliberations with us does not bode well for the future.
David Torrance recently reminded us in Total Politics magazine how the SNP barely talked about independence in the run up to both 2007 and last year's election to avoid scaring the voters. Since winning their majority in May, of course, they've talked of little else. They've done it by picking fights with Westminster at every opportunity, but haven't included that many facts in with their rhetoric.
Trying to pretend that independence is just an option we can casually ease ourselves in to is absolute mince. They want the voters to think that splitting up the UK is just a walk in the park.
The SNP think that they can win the referendum by a mixture of sparkly optimism, playing the victim, blaming Westminster for everything. It's in their interests to keep the focus off the detail. And having a go at Nick Clegg is a good way of going about it.
It's also a good way of deflecting attention from the real reason for Nick's visit - to promote the UK Government's Youth Contract. Willie Rennie has been trying ever since it was announced to get the SNP to say they'll support it and they've been, guess what, pretty evasive.
Willie said yesterday:
“The Youth Contract is a great example of how the Coalition Government is working to help Scottish young people at this tough time for the economy.
“Recent figures have shown that youth unemployment is rising faster in Scotland than across the rest of the UK so the Scottish Government should embrace the youth contract as a way to reverse this worrying trend.
“Today’s young people are the next generation of taxpayers that will help get the economy back on firm ground. We need measures that help them to get up and get on and the Youth Contract is a vital part of this process.
“The Youth Contract is the right policy at the right time and I’m pleased Nick Clegg could come to help promote it today.”Having said all of the above, I actually do think that who says something can be as important as what they say. By having Nick use the "extremist" line, however right it is, it gives that lazy SNP press officer a shot at goal. Nick should maybe have talked up the possibility, touted before Christmas, of enabling legislation to clear up any doubt about the referendum result, something that if it happens will come from a Liberal Democrat Secretary of State. He could have concentrated on all the things the UK Government are doing to benefit Scotland. He should have concentrated more on us not being a unionist party.
There's no doubt that independence is an extreme option, and that line needs to get out, but I think it would have been better if Willie, not Nick, had said it. The SNP wouldn't have had the same possibility for comeback and as it is they have successfully managed to detract a little from Nick's visit.
UK Ministers have every right to talk about Scottish matters and express their concerns about independence. They need to have a wee think about the wisest and most effective way to get those messages out, though.