THE question of when a second independence referendum may happen is never far from the headlines. Whether it’s a poll showing support leaping to 54% yes, SNP infighting over having a Plan B or not, or Boris Johnson saying a generation is a long time (and a lot longer than six years), Scotland’s big constitutional question is not going away.

But if it’s a question of when, not if, another vote will happen, wouldn’t it be good to get it over with quickly? Scotland’s politics may look relatively normal compared to the extraordinary trajectory of the UK’s politics in recent years. But it’s not that normal, or that healthy, when the dominant issue in politics is essentially a permanent campaign to which most else is subsumed (apart, right now, from Covid-19).

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Of course, with “yes” ahead in the polls, and Johnson in office, it’s the pro-independence side that would grab the chance of an early vote if it could. But the unionist side might consider where things will be in early 2022. The economic impacts of the Covid crisis will still be strongly felt then (a potential plus for the unionist side), and – it has to be hoped – the health impacts will be much more under control.

Some independence supporters might prefer a slower path – building support to 60% and more, working up the policy arguments. And many unionists doubtless hope that putting it off for several years will, somehow, lead to a sea-change in opinion.

But, in the end, a politics of constant campaigning has some real downsides, whichever side you’re on. For a start, it means a mostly very inward-looking and a very process-driven debate. Is the Union a great thing or on its last legs? Does the Scottish Government have a democratic mandate to hold another vote? How badly is devolution malfunctioning? Would any Plan B work? And so on.

True, the SNP policy of independence in the EU means some attention is paid to European issues – mainly to the key independence questions of whether, under what conditions and how quickly an independent Scotland could join the EU. But how many times does the same ground need to be gone over (yes, an independent Scotland could apply to join the EU, would need to meet all the criteria, could get in fairly swiftly if it did). Circular debate on the same issues is the inevitable outcome of a permanent but unresolved constitutional divide.

Meanwhile, bigger issues of the European green deal, the massive new Covid recovery fund and future EU budget deal, the EU’s failures on the refugees and migration front, its populist and rule of law challenges, are all rather far from most Scottish political and policy debate. Beyond the EU, the current state of global power politics was parlous and deeply troubling even before the Covid-19 crisis. Whether as part of the UK, or as an independent Scotland in the EU, these global challenges need serious debate.

And, if Scotland does choose independence, then the process of becoming a well-established, mature independent state will take time. It’s not only a question of the transitions from the UK and into the EU but a question of active, long-term state-building.

And if, contrary to current polls, Scotland chose to stay in the UK, then political time could be used to push for a more positive transformation of the Union rather than the catalogue of destructive errors currently emanating out of London. Resolving the constitutional debate quickly would free up time for such vital issues.

But, of course, democratic politics doesn’t work that way. Democracy takes time. The UK and Scottish governments will continue their stand-off over another referendum; SNP infighting over tactics will doubtless continue and opposition parties will carry on inveighing against independence. And, while the constitutional issue is at the core of Scottish politics, then it will be a politics dominated by a rather inward-looking debate.

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Some unionists argue this is a reason to drop the independence debate and focus on other issues. Pro-independence supporters counter that a serious contemporary politics needs an independent Scotland first. The debate is not going away.

But the world is in a deeply unstable state and it would behove both sides of the independence divide to spend more time engaging with those wider challenges.

Scotland’s politics, given the constitutional divide, is inevitably stuck in a repetitive campaigning state. But let’s look forward to the day when Scottish politics, at last, moves on.

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