This article appears as part of the Unspun: Scottish Politics newsletter.

“I can announce that the Scottish Government is proposing that the independence referendum be held on 19 October 2023”. 

So said Nicola Sturgeon on 28 June 2022. 

That was the plan had the Supreme Court ruled that Holyrood had the power to legislation for a referendum on independence.

Reader, as you’ll know, it did not. 

While the SNP would probably rather Thursday pass without occasion, some in the independence movement plan on marking the day, if only to point out how far we are from a second vote. 

Alex Salmond, for example, will visit Ritchie Hall in Strichen, where he would have cast his ballot had Sturgeon’s new vote taken place. 

It’s nearly a decade since the first referendum and there’s no sign that a second is round the corner. 

At their conference over the weekend, the SNP killed off Nicola Sturgeon’s Plan B, to use the next general election as a de facto referendum.

The position adopted by delegates was that they will seek to give “democratic effect to Scotland becoming an independent country” if they win a majority of seats when the UK next goes to the polls – widely expected to be next year, though Rishi Sunak can, if he wants, hold on until January 2025. 

That means that if they win 29 of Scotland’s 57 seats, they will attempt to start independence negotiations, or if No 10 aren’t up for that, then they will attempt to hold talks on holding a second referendum.

But I don’t think any of the SNP members who made the trip to the space-age haunted shopping centre that is Aberdeen’s exhibition centre believe for a second that those talks will take place. 

“I mean, one of the reasons why the unionists don't want to hold a referendum,” Professor Sir John Curtice tells Unspun, “is because of their risk of losing”. 

There are, he thinks, two circumstances in which there might be another vote on the constitution.

Firstly, if there’s a hung parliament and the SNP has sufficient leverage over the Labour Party. 

“If we were talking prior to the Liz Truss fiscal event, one would say that there is a non-trivial probability of that happening,” he adds.

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“Two things have gone wrong for the SNP. The first is the Labour Party have gone way ahead in the polls such that frankly, what happens in Scotland, is still potentially irrelevant.

“But then, of course, the second thing that's gone wrong is not only has the Labour Party gone up initially in tandem with what's going on south of the border, but also, more recently, the SNP vote has gone down.

“The SNP might find they lose 20 seats. So obviously the chances of a parliament in which they have leverage are even more diminished.”

The other – and this chimes with Humza Yousaf’s speech to conference – is if the SNP and the wider Yes movement can get those opposed to independence involved in the debate.  

“There's no guarantee of this,” Prof Curtice cautions. “They've got to come up with a good argument.”

But if they can start moving the dial so that support for independence gets to 55%, he argues, “at some point the unionists will have to think ‘hang on. If we don't go on to the field of play, we're just allowing them to score goals.’” 

The Herald: 'They've got to come up with a good argument' says John Curtice on involving those outside the independence debate'They've got to come up with a good argument' says John Curtice on involving those outside the independence debate (Image: Newsquest)
“So the first thing they therefore have to do is to force the unionists into the debate. And once the unionists are forced into the debate, then it becomes more difficult for them to say, you ain't having a referendum.

“Because you're then beginning in public to accept that there is an argument going on that you feel it necessary to respond to.” 

Earlier this week, Yousaf told the SNP conference that he hoped the independence debate would end the arguments over process, and allow the party to “concentrate not on the how – but on the why.”

But, the problem here for the First Minister, according to Prof Curtice, is that his party has “not got the intellectual case altogether”.

There has, he adds, been no real debate on Brexit.

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“The international question in Scotland now faces is not the same as in 2014. 

“There is a material change to circumstance and the material changes to circumstances change the question. 

“The question now is, do you want to be inside the UK but outside the EU? Or do you want to be inside the EU and outside the UK? That creates all sorts of interesting trade-offs.”

Basically, if Yousaf wants to start talking about the how, he and his party are going to need to properly dedicate themselves to the debate and be honest with voters about what, for example, those trade-offs might mean.

Otherwise, he’ll just have to keep on waiting for a hung parliament.