You have got to hand it to him – Alex Salmond, the leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) is a masterful political provocateur. He has this week triggered what has been called a constitutional crisis. Even more extraordinarily, he has managed to get the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Labour Party to unite in opposing the SNP's somewhat unique plan to actually deliver on one of their manifesto pledges: to give the Scottish people a choice in whether to secede from the United Kingdom. Michael Heseltine notwithstanding, even Margaret Thatcher managed to have the Conservatives and Tony Blair standing in her corner against all other opponents.
Adding to the intrigue is the firm denunciation by Whitehall spokespeople of the legitimacy of the result of the referendum before it even happens . The responsibility for calling a referendum of Scottish independence rests with Westminster, not Holyrood. It is analogous to, but an even more egregious reversal of the famed West Lothian question. In one sense, the Whitehall machine is playing politics as much as Salmond; they are opening jabs in what may well turn out to be a epic battle. Ultimately however, whether any denunciation of the voice of the people by reliance on legal chicanery will doubtless fail, it is of such things that civil wars are elsewhere born, just ask Edward II.
The crisis has even turned the normally staid and reasonable Michael White into an inchoate ranter. Witness the remarkable column in Tuesday's Guardian. It started as a summary of the news like many more besides that graced newspapers this week but skip to the middle and readers will find this utterly nonsensical argument against Scottish independence:
The SNP wish to enfranchise 16 and 17-year-olds looks to be what it almost certainly is, a chance to swing a majority among young people who think it's just another X Factor vote.
If that sounds a bit patronising, it is, but it's not anti-Scot. Nick Clegg (bless him) wants all UK 16 and 17-year-olds to have the vote and he's wrong too. They're too young and most of them don't care. Just look at the abysmal turnout among 18 to 24-year olds since Harold Wilson fiddled the franchise from 21 to 18 in 1970.
Aside from the arrogance, the argument doesn't even make sense. So what if the majority of youngsters are apolitical (although the evidence of last year's student protests suggest White also has that endemic ailment common to Westminster correspondents: political amnesia)? Sixteen-to-seventeen year olds who think it's just another X Factor are not going to vote anyway! All White's logic will have achieved will be to have stopped some youths, however few in number they may be, who actually give a damn about voting. And on such solid arguments is the argument against independence sourced. A cursory glance of editorials shows White is certainly not alone in his inanity. If this is the stuff from which political news stories are made, then I can confidently predict 2012 is going to be a very interesting year indeed.