PRIME Minister David Cameron took to the airwaves at the start of this week and announced that the Government was about to bring forward proposals for a "fair, legal and decisive" referendum on Scottish independence "sooner rather than later".
On Tuesday, Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond stepped forward with a proposal of his own: a vote in autumn 2014.
There are great discussions to be had about the question on the voting paper and there is the potential for spectacular rows between London and Edinburgh. But the clock is ticking loudly towards the day when the Scottish people are given the chance to break-up Britain.
The political canniness of the SNP's Mr Salmond has mesmerised the political establishment. At a time when the Labour leader struggles to land punches, Mr Salmond threatens to render David Cameron the last prime minister of the United Kingdom.
Last month a leading broadsheet named Mr Salmond Briton of the Year and over the next 1,000 or so days the SNP and Tory chiefs will be locked in a battle that will define their legacies.
Mr Salmond's success at forcing this crisis on the UK Government is all the more extraordinary because now does not look like an ideal time to push for constitutional reform - just ask the Liberal Democrats who failed to convert the country to the Alternative Vote last year.
In May 2010 the SNP won a mere six of Scotland's 59 Westminster seats. The idea that being a small, European country was a shortcut to prosperity was in tatters following the immolation of the Irish and Icelandic economies.
Furthermore, Scotland's once mighty banking sector had been rescued by the British taxpayer.
You might have expected voters in the Scottish Parliament elections a year later to respond to the sight of a Conservative-Liberal Democrat Government in Westminster by embracing Labour - after all, this is what happened in Wales.
But Alex Salmond's party won 69 of the 129 seats in the Holyrood parliament.
The Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat leaders resigned as a result of this Herculean thrashing and speculation started as to when and how a referendum would take place.
These still appear inclement conditions for a vote on independence. For starters, opinion polls generally show only a third of Scots want their nation independent. They liked Mr Salmond's leadership of a 2007-2011 minority government and gave him a shock majority, but this does not mean they share his ambitions for a standalone Scotland.
Likewise, the full horror of what can happen to a small country with a collapsed economy has grown more gruesome by the day. Scottish voters have watched the social turmoil in Greece and the news that Irish debt is due to peak in 2013 at 119% of GDP will make more than a few spines shiver.
What's more, it is unclear how "independent" a post-UK Scotland would be. The prospect of joining the eurozone is about as appetising as eating dodgy Belgian mussels. Would membership of an emerging fiscal union dilute any newly gained economic sovereignty? And would the attractions of sticking with the pound be much greater if the UK Treasury and Bank of England had even less incentive to consider the needs of the Scottish economy? The SNP insist an independent Scotland would be a prosperous country, especially if it had its fair share of North Sea oil revenues. But the UK Government's Scotland Office argues that even when oil and gas revenue is taken into account the country has run a pounds 41bn deficit since 1980-81. …