The intensity of the debate/kerfuffle/furore about the independence referendum continues to build with the publication of the UK Government’s consultation document today – which at first glance doesn’t appear to bear much relation to the weekend spin from the Prime Minister.

Despite the legal concerns of Scotland’s finest legal tweeters, I share Jeff’s view that Holyrood could ask a question which is politically equivalent to an independence referendum, even if the previous “open negotiations” one is a poor choice and one that would require a vote on what had been negotiated. No matter: the Coalition proposal is for clarity on Holyrood’s ability to legislate here, and that’s welcome. The date limits and nature of the question are far more problematic, and I’ll return to the latter shortly unless someone gets in ahead of me again here. On the date front it’s long been my view that a late poll with a tired SNP administration (domestically they’ve basically run out of ideas already) is more likely to be lost, so both sides appear to be arguing for the position which suits them least.

In any case, the constitutional battle is truly upon us. But are the armies well-matched? Is the terrain more suited to one side or another? Is there a parity of intelligence? Clearly not. Just consider the main combatants: the Coalition versus the SNP administration.

Starting with the ground war, the former have, at a Ministerial level, the full-time efforts of Michael Moore and David Mundell. Even the most ardent Lib Dem or Tory wouldn’t pretend they were their parties’ most imaginative or tactically shrewd generals. The best you can say for Moore is that he’s tall and looks Ministerial, whereas Mundell is no friend to his notional colleagues at Holyrood and hardly a first-class campaigner. Neither of them appear terribly in touch with matters on the ground – even just working in London rather than Scotland can’t help, and Moore, like most Lib Dems, has the air of someone who knows he’s not got another Parliamentary term awaiting him: time to enjoy the limo, the staff and the state receptions before heading off into oblivion.

The Coalition also have the Prime Minister’s occasional attention, as this week, which typically doesn’t help very much. David Cameron, despite the name, clearly views Scotland as a far-away country where one’s chums go shooting, which makes it more interesting than the North of England, but only marginally. He regularly overplays his hand, as this week, and I have no doubt that every time he discusses the constitution or Scotland a little dial in SNP HQ twitches perceptibly towards the shiny yellow YES end.

And as for the rank and file, who are they? Imagine a non-party No campaign had been set up: other than hacks from the three main anti-independence parties, who joins up? Who volunteers to be the lion led by these donkeys? Who wants to spend their rainy evenings in a forlorn attempt to move David Cameron’s drinks cabinet six inches closer to Edinburgh? And where are the financial backers who’ve waited their whole lives to fund a defence of the Union?

Consider next the Coalition’s air force. The Scotland Office has perhaps three press officers, and no credible sign of a strategy unit. According to Guido, there isn’t even a SpAd in evidence, while the press team’s work is the kind of stolid and neutrally-worded stuff the civil service insist upon. Finally, the big intellectual guns – presumably naval to stick with my metaphor – in other words, Unionist campaign central. What is it? Where is it? There is simply no devoted and organised hard core with the preservation of the Union as its raison d’être, contrary to Alex Neil’s suspicion of a Yoonyonisht Conshpirashy. Admittedly there are first class journalists for whom the Union is crucial, including the trenchant Alan Cochrane, the self-described black-hearted Unionist, and Alex Massie, who deserves a wider audience than Twitter and the Spectator, but the current field of battle regularly leaves them bemoaning their side’s mistakes.

Above all, the Coalition has lots of purposes, some contradictory, some associated with grinding the faces of the poor, and some day-to-day fire-fighting. The Scottish question is not their main concern, apparently not even for those Scottish Lib Dems for whom the prospect of independence ought to be focusing their minds. Fighting on lots of fronts at once is much harder than a single determined effort, and it shows.

As for the SNP and the Scottish Government, they have an entire team of Ministers with a dedicated interest in the constitutional question. The FM and DFM are truly first class officers, generals with strong tactical nous, irritating as I find the Great Puddin’ in particular. The next tier has brains too, notably Swinney and Russell. They’re all based here in Scotland, which makes for a much stronger connection to the ground campaign, their careers still look like their trajectory is upwards, and their supporters don’t cringe when they come on the telly. And those front-line troops are gee’d up to say the least. They’ve just had the best ever election result in their lifetimes, they’re experienced, and they believe one more push will see them achieve total victory. They can also call on irregulars, ex-SNP fundies and those for whom the current leadership is too right-wing, people who wouldn’t campaign in a local election ever again but who would do anything they could to deliver independence.

And on the air war side the SNP have a staggering array of media professionals. They have a team in the party’s own offices, from where electioneering and campaigning are led – and they buy in strategic support. They have Liz Lloyd’s well-run team on the fourth floor at Holyrood, dedicated to getting backbench SNP MSPs into the papers and on the telly. They have their own vast civil service press team who can’t promote the SNP, but promote the hell out of their Ministers in a pseudo-non-partisan way, just as they did for the last lot (and who seem brighter than the UK equivalents). And they have 11 SpAds, led by the always-on Kevin Pringle (incidentally, the odds on an all-male team like that occurring purely by chance are less than a twentieth of one percent, all other things being equal), bridging the gap between the civil service press teams and Ministers’ partisan positions. Each and every one of these people is based in Scotland, and they know the key Scottish political hacks in a way the Coalition’s press team simply don’t. With the exception of the Record and the Telegraph, all the important papers backed them in May, even if they won’t back a Yes vote whenever it comes.

I felt the disparity when it was just me doing media for the Green MSPs by day and for the party by night and weekend, but the assets the Coalition itself can deploy on a day-to-day basis fall almost as short: the exception will be on rare weeks like this where Scotland is indeed their overall front line.

Finally, the SNP itself is that single-issue big gun the Union side lacks. They have some serious shortcomings – how and by whom the constitution should be written is one, what they want to do with an independent Scotland is another – but they know how to make the case and they have the organisation. They’ve also got an overflowing war chest, from poets to lottery winners, and they’re supported by a series of thinkers like Pat Kane and Gerry Hassan, blogs like Bella Caledonia and, well, there’s actually a bit of a dearth of non-mental SNP-backing blogs, but you see the argument. (edit – this has been taken as an insult to first-class bloggers like Kate and LPW: it’s not, just that neither are exactly uncritical, and there are others too, but many good ones are now sorely missed)

These substantial disparities don’t guarantee an SNP win over how the referendum will be held, nor in the referendum itself, but they’ve certainly put themselves in about the strongest position possible, and the appearance of a UK administration being a larger force is superficial and entirely misleading. In fact the gap between them is almost what Iain Banks calls an Out Of Context Problem in the opposite direction. Your civilisation is getting on swimmingly with swords and pikes when a ship turns up and men with guns get out. Taking account of all these imbalances, the next phases of this war remain the SNP’s to lose.