THERE’S a chapter in Ed Balls’ new memoir, Speaking Out: Lessons in Life and Politics, called Risk.

“Sometimes leadership is about boldness,” he writes of one lesson, “sometimes caution”, before going on to recount the 2007 general election that never was; for months Gordon Brown’s team had talked up an early election and the point of decision approached.

 To some it looked a no-brainer: the new Prime Minister was ahead in the polls and the leader of the Opposition (David Cameron) in disarray. The momentum was with Labour, yet Balls had a sneaking suspicion “this was as good as it was going to get”. 

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Then Brown got cold feet and plunged his team into disarray. “We’d marched so far up the hill,” recalled Balls, “there was no taking the party, the media and, most importantly, the public all the way down again.”

Yet they did, and Brown’s premiership never really recovered. It’s not a perfect analogy by any stretch but I reckon Nicola Sturgeon now finds herself in a similar situation. She has let, as one Nationalist put it, “the genie out of the bottle” with her response to Brexit, and backing down now many of her activists have been fired up won’t be easy. 

And as with Labour in the autumn of 2007, this might be as good as things get for the SNP: the First Minister remains popular (though has been overtaken in one survey by Ruth Davidson), the Labour Party is in disarray and last Friday’s National Survey and tomorrow’s Programme for Government means the Scottish Government maintains a degree of momentum.

 But having repeatedly described a second referendum as “highly likely”, Ms Sturgeon can’t play this waiting game forever. When Article 50 is triggered and it’s confirmed that Scotland isn’t going to stay in the EU (or the Single Market, the First Minister’s “red line” continues to shift) the SNP’s strategists will have to decide how they’re going to respond.

Although there are competing interpretations of last Friday’s SNP “away day” in Stirling, I don’t get the sense those in charge necessarily see Article 50 as a decision point, rather they’ll continue to busk it, waiting for something to come up. But the trouble with this is that “something” bad may emerge. Worse, Ms Sturgeon risks looking indecisive or as if she’s playing games – or both. 

Keep everything up in the air and something risks landing in the wrong place. Next year’s local government elections are already likely to be framed around another referendum, and if the 2020 General Election goes the same way it may not be to the SNP’s advantage. Then there’d be a knock-on loss of momentum at Holyrood elections the year after that. And if, by then, Brexit has become the new normal, then the moment will have passed. 

There’s actually a good case for the UK Government to call the SNP’s bluff, by offering a fresh Section 30 Order on the back of Article 50, but with another time limit. The former Conservative leader Lord Hague recently argued that asking the Commons to endorse negotiations early next year would “flush out” those wishing to “flout” the result of the EU referendum, not just the SNP but those who agree with Labour leadership contender Owen Smith about the need for a second ballot. 

Then there’s the question of whether anyone can actually be bothered with another referendum. Polls – as the Prime Minister pointed out yesterday morning – suggest not, while even veterans of the first Yes campaign have detected a palpable lack of enthusiasm among some of their compatriots. 
There’s also a growing gap between the First Minister’s framing of Brexit as a “catastrophe” and most voters’ actual experience since June 23 (although of course that could change further down the line). 

Having successfully reached out to No voters at last year’s general election by talking down another independence referendum, now all the SNP leader does it talk it up. So rather than winning over soft Unionists, they’re being put off. Sure, there’s movement the other way too, but the most recent YouGov poll suggests it’s balancing out rather than pushing up support for independence. The once pragmatic Ms Sturgeon increasingly sounds like an independence-no-matter-what fundamentalist. 

Recent events have also served to put all of this into much-needed context. Just look across the Irish Sea to another small independent country forced to side with a global corporation against the European Union (on which the SNP has been revealingly silent), then there’s the recent Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation. Sure, the Scottish Government doesn’t have all the levers but it’s had enough over the past decade to have at least made a dent on inequality. 

Tomorrow the Joseph Rowntree Foundation will launch a campaign (following four years of study) to eradicate poverty in the UK: just think if even a fraction of the energy devoted to independence had been channelled into exercises of this sort.

Of course the First Minister and her colleagues believe independence to be a means to an end, but so-called “utilitarian” nationalism looks increasingly threadbare. In Stirling on Friday Ms Sturgeon dwelled more on the “democratic deficit” than social justice. 

She also spoke of “change”, Scotland having changed since 2014 and the UK having “fundamentally changed” after June 23, 2016, but when it comes to the fundamentals – inequality, economic growth, etc – actually little has changed since the Scottish Parliament was created in 1999. Deputy First Minister John Swinney has predicted that tomorrow’s legislative programme will be “deep and rich”, showing a “responsible and competent government”, but one suspects it’ll be more of the usual cautious middle-management. 
The expected Scottish Social Security Bill, for example, will be little deeper than jettisoning the term “benefits”, yet another triumph of style over substance. 

Nationalists are fond of highlighting the fact that Scotland is the third wealthiest part of the UK outside London and the South East as if they’re somehow responsible; actually that happened under the governments of Thatcher, Major and Blair, all of whom the SNP accused of neglecting Scotland. Even so, Unionists still struggle to tell a compelling story.

Early last week, Gordon Brown delivered what the comedian Matt Forde calls his “big annual referendum speech”, but despite some cogent analysis it didn’t go beyond the usual Unionist strategy of devolving a bit more power and hoping for the best. All the low-hanging fruit, however, has been picked, so another referendum (if it comes) will likely be a choice between the status quo (with additional post-Brexit responsibilities) or independence. 

But we aren’t there yet and won’t be until Nicola Sturgeon, like Gordon Brown in 2007, reaches her point of decision.

For the SNP things might never be this good again, so there will either be, to quote an impatient Nationalist, “another referendum or a fudge”. Which course will the First Minister choose?