THIS week’s Holyrood debate on whether to stage a second referendum wasn’t particularly informative, and nor, despite my exhortation in this column, was it much cop rhetorically. If there is a new Cicero in our midst, he or she is keeping awfully quiet.

However the debate was revealing in other ways. It was striking just how stale a lot of SNP attack lines have become. Arguing for a referendum, the party made a beeline for memory lane, dredging up Margaret Thatcher, the miners’ strike, and other 80s hits.

These things mean something to my generation and above, but they’re a mystery to many. It felt like the SNP was tilting at ghosts. One senior Nationalist told me they were exasperated at the nascent campaign. “It’s tired. It’s really tired. There’s no fresh thinking going on.”

The SNP does seem to be underestimating its opponents, especially the Tories. The live ones that is, the ones it actually has to fight. It’s worth remembering the circumstances in which Alex Salmond called the last referendum. His 2011 landslide was remarkable. He increased his MSP tally by almost 50 per cent and achieved a near-impossible majority. He was the most successful politician in the UK. His opponents, meanwhile, were all over the place.

Humiliated, Scottish Labour’s Iain Gray had been replaced by Johann Lamont. Ruth Davidson and Willie Rennie became Tory and Liberal Democrat leaders despite only just being elected MSPs. At Westminster, David Cameron had failed to win a majority against Gordon Brown and gone into coalition with the LibDems, who were instantly reviled for reneging on tuition fees. The Prime Minister granted Mr Salmond the referendum, but naively assumed the Union would breeze it.

Things are very different now. Theresa May has a majority, and Ms Sturgeon does not. The SNP’s record after 10 years in office is becoming a quicksand. Ms Davidson and Mr Rennie are still there, battle-hardened. Kezia Dugdale is failing to cut through but slowly getting better. The clear winner of the 2016 election, Ms Davidson is hyper-confident and in her element on the constitutional debate. The Yes camp is hesitant, divided over timing, currency and the EU.

Consider also Ms Sturgeon’s claim the Tories could be in power at Westminster to 2030. It’s obviously meant to appal voters, but if true, the Tories will be a magnet for money and talent for the next decade. Sure, there will be carpetbaggers, but they could also attract a generation of new leaders. The Tories are not going to let an independence vote ruin that enticing future.

Mrs May said “now is not the time” for a referendum. But in private, the Tories are more open. For them, it’ll never be the time for a referendum. The plan is to fend off Ms Sturgeon until the 2021 election so a pro-Union majority can replace the pro-independence one at Holyrood.

So there will be no Cameron-style roll over. Instead, as the Holyrood debate also showed, it will be a grim, exhausting slog, in which every inch of the process is contested, ensuring the warning that a referendum will be divisive becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The SNP isn’t used to this level of pushback. Its opponents have been on the back foot for years. Not now. If the Tories succeed in parrying the First Minister until the next Holyrood election, it could be the grievance Ms Sturgeon needs to win a majority and deliver independence. But the Tory calculation is that people will be thoroughly sick of the whole thing and vote for a change.

One Tory MSP asked me to imagine the First Minister going to the polls in 2021, amid lousy health and education stats, and asking voters to back five more years of constitutional churn. “They’ll tell her to f*** off,” my source grinned. “The SNP have peaked, and they know they’ve peaked. We’re more up for this fight than they are.” We shall see.