The key to winning any battle is often in the timing.

William Wallace won the battle of Stirling Bridge by moving early on the English forces and making sure his army held the advantageous North Bank of the River Forth. Then they waited.

Knowing that the number of front line Scottish forces equalled the number of front line English forces across the fixed width of a bridge, Wallace waited for as many of the English forces to cross the bridge as he knew his smaller forces could overwhelm and then pounced with devastating effect.

That was then and this is now but let’s not pretend that the two sides of the independence debate are not similarly preparing for battle. Salmond’s forces are to the North and Cameron’s considerably larger forces are to the South, albeit with less deadly consequences than 1297 about to ensue.

With timing being such a key question in any such contest, it is not clear to me why the Prime Minister, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband are not collectively taking advantage of the SNP’s apparent indecision over detailed questions of its independence proposals and trampling through their opponents upon the steed of a 2012 referendum, long before we reach the SNP’s preferred timing and terrain of 2015.

We only need to look to May 2011 for an example of why moving early may well be to the unionist camp’s benefit.

The AV referendum was held within a year of the General Election result, a surprise result that created a Tory-Lib Dem coalition and a previously undiscussed policy of a referendum on the Alternative Vote. The lack of understanding around what this voting system involved led to all manner of misinformation being peddled by the No camp.

So why would this tactic be any different in an independence referendum? What would independence mean for Scotland’s currency? For Scotland’s Defence? For our welfare state? For our banks? Insert your own answers here, and that’s exactly what may happen. It would be the No camp and a sympathetic media, just as it was for AV, that would make the running on those unanswered questions if the pro-independence parties are not allowed time to get their act together and prepare a better narrative.

It’s sneaky, it’s tawdry, it’s downright duplicitous. But, it’s politics and a win is a win. You bank it and move on. Just look at the sobbing mess that is was the Liberal Democrat policy of voting reform. That could be the independence movement this time next year.

There are more worthy arguments in favour of holding a referendum early over and above pressing home the weight of numbers, resources and column inches:

– Constitutional matters are deferred. The SNP won an election with a manifesto that promised a referendum. Consequently, it’s reasonable to argue that it is now incumbent on the Westminster Government to deliver that referendum, in consultation with the Scottish Government. There is no question that anyone other than the Scottish public should have a vote in this election and Michael Moore’s ill-advised earlier intervention has also ended the speculation that two referendums may be required. The path is clear – all that is left is for Westminster to roll out the carpet and let Scotland walk down it in the manner that she chooses. What are we waiting for?

– If you’re not playing offence then you are playing defence and doing nothing for four years while the SNP makes all the running on wording, timing and softening up the electorate barely even counts as defence. A Government that is doing nothing on any specific issue quickly falls into the trap of inertia and, as much as the Conservatives only returned one MP north of the border, it is still the leading partner in the UK Government and is duty bound to act in what it considers to be the entirety of the UK’s best interests. That extends to holding a referendum when the alternative is putting Scotland on ice for a whole parliamentary term.

– The SNP has had enough time to explain what their version of independence means and, if a snap date was called even today, it (and the Greens and the Socialists) would still have time to explain their respective visions between then and voting day. It would be a hollow objection if anyone in the SNP claimed they were being bounced into having to campaign for an aspiration that they as a party have striven for for 77 long, largely fruitless years.

– There is little doubt that the delay in holding a referendum is damaging Scotland and a responsible UK Government should see this and act accordingly, irrespective of their view that the devolved Government is truculent and troublesome. One example is as follows – there is a strong argument for having the UK’s Green Investment Bank in Edinburgh. It would be close to much of the renewable projects and expertise that exists in the country and the Finance Sector in Scotland’s Capital has suffered disproportionate loss of jobs and prestige through the economic crisis so suitably qualified, motivated staff are in place to hit the ground running. However, why would the UK Government risk starting the bank in Scotland when there is a risk that in several years’ time Scotland will be leaving the UK? This issue of Scotland being short-changed of investment up to the referendum date can be grossed out across all market areas to a greater or lesser extent.

– Independence is dominating and, as a result, dogging Scottish politics. Just think of all the parliamentary time, the media space and the resources that would be freed up if the decision was taken once and for all? Similar sized nations have a significant advantage over us when they can discuss actual policies surrounding real governmental areas like education, health and justice while the same hollow independence arguments get hurled between Nats and Unionists over freedom/separation in the debating chamber, and in the media. Look up Scottish Politics news from ten years ago and it will look depressingly similar to the debate that is going on today. Political progress is being trammelled for no good reason other than partisan positioning. Let’s finally get past it and crack on with what matters.

– The timing is ideal. The Scotland Bill is making its way through Westminster and in order to ensure that this package of proposed solutions is lasting, an amendment should be tacked on to pave the way for a referendum that, from a Tory/Lib Dem perspective, strips away the option of independence once and for all and ensures appropriate focus is given to the UK Government’s Bill.

The main reason, of course, for the coalition agreement agreeing to a referendum sooner rather than later is a political one. They have a better chance of winning it if it is held sooner, not to mention a better chance of winning more MEPs and MPs at the expense of a neutered SNP in elections in 2014 and 2015 respectively.

To understand this fully requires a clear understanding of the SNP strategy which seems to be:
(1) run a competent, popular devolved Government that mitigates and insulates the worst of the Tory policies up to the General Election of 2015,
(2) hope, perversely, that the Tories win an outright majority in 2015 despite not returning a single MP north of the border and
(3) run a referendum campaign in late 2015 with the public’s two options being:

(a) suffering from a UK Conservative Government every other parliamentary term or
(b) enjoying a new Scotland under guaranteed left-leaning parties forming Governments

It is a smart, savvy, perfectly winnable strategy but it requires the door being held open to it for four long years and those who prefer the UK to remain in place are foolish to stand idly by.

I am excited for the independence campaign, agnostic about the result and impatient for it to begin.

Scotland has local elections on May 3rd 2012. That seems as good a date as any to nip this independence question in the bud once and for all.

And how ironic if, in winning the waiting game, it was David Cameron who sent the SNP homewards, to think again.