Pig wrestlingAs has been widely noted, the tone of the debate about independence has gradually gone from bad to worse, and yesterday’s heavy-handed legal action against National Collective hasn’t helped at all – ironic, because their own contributions to the debate are typically smart, calmly argued, and creative in just the ways they promised from the start.

Twitter in particular has become incredibly vitriolic, with people on both sides losing the head to partisanship – notably by defending the indefensible on “their own side” or setting up inane “parody” accounts which fail to note that parody goes best with subtle humour, not dull and repetitive bludgeoning.

Sure, that might just be a bubble, and it may well all come down to the doorstep. But there are plenty of politicians on both sides using the same divisive rhetoric, and they’ll be doing it on TV and at hustings as well as on the doorsteps. And I do really think that dismissing Twitter is naive: all the major players from the parties and the campaigns are there, alongside almost all Scotland’s key journalists and enough politically engaged civilians to make a difference. It does help set the tone, and the tone stinks.

Although there are problems on both sides, it’s not that both are offering the same range of messages. Across the whole Yes side, great optimism and inspiring enthusiasm sit alongside vitriolic carping and bile from keyboard warriors. The No campaign’s style is relatively consistent, relying as it does primarily on pretending the SNP are the Yes campaign, and then picking holes in the SNP’s policy positions. They have their bampots online, but fewer of them. Conversely, they have no-one trying to set out an inspiring vision of a future United Kingdom.

Because they don’t need to. And this collective bitter tone, driven by activists on both sides, helps the No camp. All the muddy little squabbling in the letters pages or online turns more undecided voters off the debate. And, given they know what Britain looks like now and they don’t really know what an independent Scotland would look like, that boosts the No campaign. In fact, I’d be surprised if the No campaign’s internal strategy meetings couldn’t be summed up as “go round the country and whip up apathy“.

Specifically, independence polls strongest in working class areas, parts of Scotland which have been let down by the Westminster consensus, but also parts of Scotland where turnout is often lowest. If the No campaign can depress and bore enough of the electorate into abstention, they’ll win. In fact, they’ll win anyway without a change of tone.

The broad Yes side still spend too long getting down and dirty with the minutiae of policy, and all that nitty-gritty risks distracting from The Vision Thing. Whatever SNP policy may be, an independent Scotland won’t necessarily stay in NATO, or keep the pound, or go genuinely 100% renewable, or be a socialist paradise or a tax haven.

The crucial point of this vote is that, for the first time, those who live in Scotland will make all those decisions for themselves. We’re being offered a chance to ditch an unreformable Westminster and be responsible for all our own mistakes and all our own triumphs. Surely that big picture can inspire more effectively than getting into nit-picking with the other side? Because, although both sides share responsibility for the state of the debate, as a former boss of mine once pointed out, don’t wrestle pigs in the mud, because the pig will win and the pig will enjoy it.