Behind the tartan curtain, the referendum cold war hots up

After a brief period of relative calm, the fight over the rules of the Scottish independence referendum has once again flared up. Even more than before, it's getting ugly.

At stake is the timing of the vote. The nationalists want it to take place in autumn 2014, giving them as much time as possible to get voters used to the idea. The Westminster parties prefer it to take place as soon as possible, as polls indicate the Scottish people are broadly opposed to the idea.

Who gets to decide when the referendum takes place remains far from clear. After January's confrontation on the issue the result was something of a standoff. For even if the unionist-controlled Commons ultimately has the power to impose its terms, doing so in a heavy-handed way could provide fuel for the nationalists.

The result has been a deceptively peaceful period. Both sides, keen to avoid being seen as the troublemaker, have been happy to engage in negotiations. This process looks good. But it is not thought to have been especially fruitful. A chilly detente may appear to have broken out, but behind the scenes the cold war continues.

As Winston Churchill might have said: "From Bowness on the Solway to Berwick upon the Tweed, a tartan curtain has descended across Britain."

The main arena for this undercover conflict lies in the two respective consultations on the terms of the referendum. As this weekend showed, there is nothing subtle about the way both governments are using this process to advance their own agenda.

The coalition government's 'as soon as possible' calls were reinforced by its submissions. Just 22% backed the SNP's autumn 2014 timetable. Of the 3,000 respondents, 70% said they wanted the referendum to be held 'sooner rather than later' – a loaded phrase, if ever there was one.

The Scottish government's consultation hasn't yet closed, so we'll have to wait until next month to find out the views of those whose people is most directly affected. Already, though, the process is attracting suspicion. Respondents are able to submit their comments anonymously, opening up the possibility that the hordes of online 'cybernats' will be able to skew the consultation's results in a way that wouldn't fairly reflect the real view of the Scottish people.

Ugly, isn't it? None of this has anything to do with the real issues at stake – whether Scotland can survive by itself, how the complex wiring of nationhood would be dismantled. Those issues will – may – come later. For now, the independence referendum struggle is a cold war of game-playing, an underhand fight of low blows and political dark arts. We shouldn't have ever expected anything else.