The extraordinary outpouring of emotion following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, would have diverted attention from the devolution referendum campaign this week even if good sense had not made politicians respond immediately to the public mood and cancel campaigning. Following the princess's funeral tomorrow, what chance is there of the debate regaining momentum and of people focusing attention on the decision put to them next Thursday?
Time is too short, Tam Dalyell complains in company with some media commentators. It is true that national leaders who were due to spend time in Scotland this week will now have any visits crammed in to three days, but that is no reason for claiming that the electorate cannot make up its mind on the principle of a parliament and on its tax-varying powers. We do not need Tony Blair and William Hague to help us think.
The general election campaign was criticised for being too long. The referendum campaign deals with issues debated by Scots for decades even although southern commentators wake up to the arguments only occasionally. It can hardly be argued that voters are unaware of the arguments for handing over education to a Scottish legislature, or that the notion of a "tartan tax" is novel. The referendum campaign is in many ways a rerun of issues raised during the election, at least by the Conservatives and the SNP. (Labour and the Liberal Democrats concentrated in April on education and health believing that these were of greatest significance to voters.) Next Thursday will determine the importance people give to constitutional change. When asked by pollsters whether they want a parliament, most say yes, but when asked to rank it among issues vital to them it sinks well down the list. Therefore the risk remains of apathy at the ballot box, though paradoxically the lull in campaigning may counter that. Voters will not have become so tired of a propaganda barrage and of televised debates as in other circumstances.
Optimistically, they will return to first principles. The complaints of Sir Bruce Pattullo and a handful of other business leaders are irrelevant to voters as well as to their own businesses. It has been pointed out that the effects of unpredictable ups and downs in mortgage rate charged by the Bank of Scotland and other lenders are far greater than the extra income tax even if levied at the maximum by a Scottish government.
Far more important is bringing decision-making back to Scotland. That is the crux of the debate. It is clearest cut in education, long administratively devolved but still entrusted to the whim of a majority of non-Scottish MPs without knowledge or interest. It is time for boldness and a fresh start.