NO Christmas card from Nicola Sturgeon this year. Again. But I did get a sort-of present, along with every other citizen: a document called Scotland’s Right to Choose. It is the Scottish Government’s case for a second independence referendum next year, and it raises important questions. I’d like to put them to the First Minister now if I may. The first one is:

Do you really want a referendum in 2020?

The “Scotland’s Right to Choose” document says it is the Government’s position that a referendum should be held before the end of 2020. But do they really mean it?

First, we can all see the polls. Support for independence hasn’t changed much, but neither has support for remaining in the UK and that means there’s a good risk of Yes losing in 2020. In private, many senior figures in the Scottish Government accept the only comfortable referendum will be when the polls are showing around 60% for Yes for at least a year. And many unionists would agree with that: 60% would be a “settled will” – 50/50 is not.

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There are other reasons to doubt the SNP’s insistence on 2020. We know some of their strategists think allowing Brexit to bite for a few years could drive middle-class Remainers to Yes. We also know the FM is asking for a 2020 referendum (under pressure from her evangelical wing) in the knowledge a Tory No will be sent up from London, England, and in the hope the Tory No will build resentment in time for a referendum she has a better chance of winning.


Question two: Do you honestly think the election result is a mandate for the referendum?

Here is what “Scotland’s Right to Choose” says about the SNP’s mandate: “the people of Scotland have voted on manifestos containing pledges on an independence referendum, and have elected a Scottish Parliament where a majority of the MSPs support such a referendum”. It also says the current mandate was reinforced by the recent General Election.

But is anyone buying that, particularly from a party that has always objected to the flaws in the UK’s electoral system? The Scottish Government says that “for 40 of the 74 years since 1945 … Scotland has been ruled by governments elected by fewer than half of Scottish constituencies”. True. But you could just as easily say Scotland is ruled by an SNP government that’s supported by less than half the Scottish electorate. You could also say the SNP won 80% of the Scottish constituencies at the general election even though they attracted only 45% of the vote.

The point is that our flawed system is usually an inaccurate reflection of opinion, and yet the Scottish Government is behaving as if it’s Gospel. As I said last week, thousands of unionist Scots voted SNP at the general election because they wanted Brexit stopped and their votes do not count as support for a second referendum (and even if you do include them, the SNP still only attracted a minority of the electorate).

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The bottom line? I think most Scots would accept a referendum if there was evidence of a settled will, as there was in the 1990s for devolution. But the number of constituencies a party has in a flawed system is not a good or definitive measure of public opinion, especially on something as important as the constitution. A flawed system produces a flawed mandate.

Question three: Do you accept that Scotland leaving the UK could be harder than the UK leaving the EU?

The Scottish Government’s document says a vote for independence in 2020 would allow the smoothest transition to an independent Scotland taking its place as a member of the EU. Ah yes. Smooth transitions. Open borders. The easiest trade deal in human history. See how easily the slogans of Brexiters become the slogans of Scottish nationalists.

The reality is that Scexit looks way trickier than Brexit. The UK is a sovereign state which means it can leave the EU without having to decide its currency; it also doesn’t have to apply to join other international organisations or sort out its foreign or defence policies.

The same does not apply to Scotland – after voting for independence, it would be leaving a state rather than an organisation made up of states and would therefore have to make many choices from scratch that the UK isn’t facing with Brexit – on shared assets and debts for instance. All of this means Scotland leaving the UK would be more complicated than the UK leaving the European Union.

And that’s before we talk about the border. The UK is going to be out of the single market and may restrict EU immigration. An independent Scotland, on the other hand, would be in the EU and would follow the four freedoms, including freedom of movement. Therefore, there would have to be checks at the Scottish border and no amount of Brexit-style reassurance from the Scottish Government is going to change that.

And finally: do you believe a close result in a second independence referendum would be accepted as legitimate in Scotland?

A little bit more from Scotland’s Right to Choose: “We are committed to an agreed, legal process … which will be accepted as legitimate in Scotland, the UK as a whole, and by the international community.”

Fair enough. What’s more, the First Minister seems to have demonstrated her commitment to an agreed, legal process by ruling out wheezes like an indicative referendum.

However, the important phrase here is “accepted as legitimate”. Brexit has taught us what happens when referendums are won by a slim margin – division, bitterness, chaos, anger, and the losers push for another vote – and that’s surely what would happen after a Scottish referendum next year, especially with the polls as they are. The result would be close. It would be contested and resisted and fought over.

And answer me this, First Minister. How could an independence referendum be the voice of the people when the people are saying two different things?