THE launch of Nicola Sturgeon’s ‘indyref2’ campaign was a strange ‘scene setter’. The only scene it evoked was Act 2 Scene 4 of King Lear – the part where Lear is incapable of answering a simple question.

Cornered, Lear warns his daughters of dire consequences. But what consequences? All he’s got are empty words. He blusters: “I will do such things – what they are yet I know not, but they shall be the terrors of the Earth!”

Lear-like, Sturgeon promises precisely nothing. She’ll tell us soon, she says, how she’ll get another referendum. But what point a launch, if no destination is defined? So, this insipid affair felt more like a distraction from her record in government than a coherent plan.

Aside from reheated – though perfectly valid – claims that Scotland could be a thriving small nation, the focus was the hole in the launch: the failure to explain the path to indyref2 in the face of Boris Johnson’s intransigence.

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If this scene setter was anything to go by, the SNP – as suspected – has done nothing to update the independence prospectus in eight years. Sturgeon had no solution to a border with England; an issue – together with currency, defence, pensions and a host of other matters – which voters have sought clarity on for years.

As a moderate Yes voter, if felt like a con. The scene setter would woo no undecideds. What’s most troubling was Sturgeon seeming to flirt with law breaking. It’s evidently an affront to democracy that Johnson refuses to accept the parliamentary mandate for another referendum, but that’s no reason for the First Minister to toy with the same contempt for norms that defines the Prime Minister. Johnson has just torn up the very treaty he agreed with Europe, over Northern Ireland.

Unless she was able to provide immediate and legal answers, Sturgeon should never have said she may hold a referendum “without a Section 30 order”.

Clearly, she also insisted any referendum would be “lawful”, but the spectre still hangs of a Scottish First Minister threatening illegality. Given Johnson’s record, we know politicians can swear blind they’re acting legally when they’re clearly not.

It’s also an insult for the First Minister to stand before TV cameras saying she’s going to hold a referendum in 2023 without explaining how. We’re expected to surmise that a legal challenge to Johnson’s dictatorial ‘No’ will pave a path to indyref2. To leave voters guessing is contemptuous of democracy. Sturgeon knows agreement with London is the only way forward. To pretend otherwise is a sleekit trick to keep her base inflamed.

I spoke to a few folk in the know, about what they make of Sturgeon’s strange scene setter.

First, Ciaran Martin. Former constitution director at the UK Cabinet Office. He negotiated the Edinburgh Agreement which paved the way to the 2014 referendum. Martin is no UK government mouthpiece. He’s been highly critical of the Johnson government’s “muscular unionism”, and upset many unionists just before the 2021 election when he argued Westminster should respect Holyrood’s majority and hold a referendum.

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However, today he’s clear that if Westminster refuses, there’s little Holyrood can do. There are two paths to independence, he says. Firstly, through agreement with the UK. “The other is through unilateral action, hoping that others will recognise your independence. The Scottish Government emphatically seeks the first option. But, frankly, this means it can’t achieve its goals without the agreement of the UK Government. Even if the Scottish Government manages to persuade a court to allow for some form of independence referendum, no court can compel unionists to take part, and no court can compel the British Government to recognise the result and facilitate independence.

“So the options for the UK Government to block any and all paths to agreed independence are inexhaustible. Independence requires political agreement with London. If that’s not forthcoming, there’s nowhere to go. You can argue that’s a denial of Scotland’s democratic rights as a nation and makes a mockery of the principle of a union of consent. Personally, I think there’s a lot in that argument. But it’s also a political and legal fact of life”.

It’s worth remembering that Edinburgh Agreement negotiations began in 2011, concluding in 2012. So even if Westminster agreed, is there time to vote in 2023? “A 2023 timetable is just about technically feasible, albeit quite tight,” says Martin. “Best practice in the UK includes things like three months for testing the question and at least six months for local authorities to prepare to administer the election once legislation to hold a vote has been passed. A recent example is the Brexit referendum: the Conservatives won the election in May 2015 and the referendum was held 13 months later. But the prerequisite for a smooth, fast timetable in this case is a swift agreement with the UK Government to replicate the 2012 one. That, quite clearly, isn’t going to happen. So I don’t think anyone should, or does, seriously expect a referendum in 2023”.

Sturgeon’s position also causes concern among those inclined to her. Last week, I talked to Professor Matt Qvortrup – the world’s leading authority on referendums. He lavished praise on Sturgeon and said he saw no reason why Scotland shouldn’t be independent. The Yes movement was so taken by his comments The National put him on their front page.

Yesterday, I asked him what he thought of the latest turn of events. He told me: “I think a referendum, would be just, fair, and reasonable but it must be legal. Sturgeon is playing with fire when she says that a referendum can be held without a Section 30 order. It cannot. You cannot criticise Boris Johnson for breaking the law over Northern Ireland, and then break the law yourself … A referendum without the consent of Westminster is unconstitutional and illegal … the Scottish Parliament does not have jurisdiction over this matter.

“I personally think that Scotland should be allowed to hold a referendum but it must be granted by Westminster. That plainly is the law. Still, if Boris refuses, then the support for the SNP will increase. And, that is a kind of silver-lining for those favouring the governing party.”

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