Alex Salmond addresses a Business for Scotland event on February 17, 2014 in Aberdeen, Scotland. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The SNP should stop playing it safe on independence

The more radical the Yes campaign’s message becomes, the more likely it is to triumph in September. 

Nineteen years ago, Michael Forsyth said the creation of an Edinburgh parliament with tax-raising powers would lead to a "jobs holocaust" in Scotland. It was a classic piece of Tory hyperbole. In the run up to the 1997 referendum, the Conservative Party used every scare tactic, no matter how ridiculous, to push for a No vote. At one stage, Michael Ancram, its constitutional affairs spokesman, even appeared to compare devolution to fascism: "Like Churchill before the last war, we see the terrible dangers ahead and we give warning".

The Tories weren’t alone in issuing silly threats against home rule. Sir Alastair Grant, of Scottish and Newcastle breweries, argued that anything other than a fiscally toothless parliament would make the Scottish economy "significantly uncompetitive", while CBI Scotland howled about the dangers of "tartan taxes". Indeed, Scottish business as a whole seemed hostile to change. Not long before the vote, a poll for the Scotland on Sunday suggested 76 per cent of Scottish companies opposed devolution.

What was it Marx said about history, tragedy and farce? One month ago, Ben van Beurden, the chief executive of oil giant Shell, told his shareholders that he "valued the continuity and stability of the UK" and therefore wanted Scotland to remain in the Union. Van Beurden’s remarks came just a week or so after BP boss Bob Dudley said he thought "Great Britain should stay great", and only a few days after Standard Life and RBS revealed plans to move south if Scotland loses the pound after a Yes vote. Since then, Alliance Trust, Barclays and Aggreko have made similar noises.

To some extent, these interventions do little more than confirm a general – and fairly obvious – rule: business doesn’t like uncertainty. British companies are almost as uneasy about the prospect of the UK leaving the EU as they seem to be about Scotland leaving the UK. In 2013, the British Chambers of Commerce polled nearly 4,000 firms and found that more than 60 per cent of them wanted the UK to stay part of Europe (albeit with a renegotiated settlement). Ford, Renault and Unilever have all said they intend to scale back their British operations following any rupture with Brussels. This isn’t a comment on the merits of the European project. It’s simply a reaction to the threat of disruption.

However, the interventions also tell us something specific about nationalist strategy. The SNP’s "prawn cocktail offensive" – its ongoing attempt, since the early noughties, to persuade Scottish business figures that they have nothing to fear from the party or its overarching goal – isn’t working. For the last decade, the SNP has gone out of its way to coddle and reassure Scottish capital. It has promised to maintain the current system of UK-wide financial regulation. It has aggressively pursued a currency union. It has opposed a financial transactions tax at the European level. It has courted zero-hours employers such as Amazon. Bafflingly, it has even pledged to undercut the UK corporate tax rate by 3 per cent. And yet Scottish business (most of it anyway) remains pretty much wedded to the British state.

I expect the SNP’s efforts to "de-risk" independence to unravel further as the referendum approaches. Despite one unnamed UK minister raising the prospect of a deal over monetary union, Alex Salmond will struggle to hold the line on the currency for another five months. At some stage, he will have to lay out some sort of back-up plan in the event post-Yes talks fail to secure a formal "sterling zone" agreement. (The Fiscal Commission is already taking a "second look" at the alternatives.) Nor can the SNP go on blithely asserting that an independent Scotland will assume its EU membership under precisely the same conditions it enjoys as part of the UK.  Those conditions will be up for negotiation after a Yes vote.

But here’s the interesting thing: there’s no reason to believe any of this is going to damage the Yes campaign. Since the start of the year, Better Together has thrown everything at the nationalists, from Osborne’s belligerent currency rhetoric to repeated threats of capital flight to umpteen apocalyptic predictions about shipyard closures – and support for independence has steadily increased. My guess is that this trend is due to growing numbers of low-income Scots shifting from No and Undecided to Yes. These voters don’t benefit from the status quo. They don’t want to hear that an independent Scotland will look exactly the same as the current, unionist one. The more radical the Yes campaign’s message becomes, the more likely they are to turn out in force on 18 September. With the momentum shifting slowly but surely in favour of Yes, the SNP and its allies have no excuse for playing it safe anymore.

James Maxwell is a Scottish political journalist. He is based between Scotland and London.

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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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