THIS was never, really, about the law.

Yes, of course, we had to go through the rigmarole of the Supreme Court hearing, and we had to listen to the mercifully short judgement in the court on Wednesday, but the case was always likely to be a waypoint in the journey towards a solution to Scotland’s constitutional question. It was a political moment, rather than a legal one.

Both sides of that constitutional wrangle have reacted in a predictable fashion. Unionists from the Conservative side have loudly and gleefully proclaimed that the Scottish independence movement is now over. It is unclear how many of them actually believe this. Nationalists, for their part, have said that the judgement obliterates the concept of a voluntary Union, on the basis that there appears to be no legal mechanism to leave it.

They have a point, of course. I often ask myself what a sensible, pragmatic, non-aligned person from another country would think about Scotland’s position and I am certain that, on the matter of a mandate for a second independence referendum, that person would say that it is crystal clear.

In 2016, the SNP stood in the Scottish Parliament election on a manifesto that claimed the right to a second referendum in certain circumstances, including if the UK were to leave the European Union against the will of Scotland. For my money, that was a little vague. Not so in the manifesto for last year’s election to Holyrood. That text was precise, the debate centred around independence, the people voted in the very clear knowledge that a vote for the SNP or the Greens was a vote for an independence referendum, and those parties constitute a clear majority in the Parliament.

That is how our system works. We have a proportional representation system, designed to lead to coalition or cooperative governments, and when both parties involved in that cooperative government have an aligned manifesto commitment, there is really no wriggle room.

It is that issue – the continued perception that Scotland can vote for something and Westminster can pat it on the head and tell it to lie down – which is the most damaging aspect of yesterday’s judgement for unionists, and the one which their initial reaction appears not to process.

This is a long-term trend, and the unionists are again failing to cater for, or even acknowledge the existence of, the huge numbers of soft No voters who put Scotland first, and find a sour taste in their mouths when considering the apparent imbalance in power between Scotland and the UK.

And so, whilst the immediate implications of Wednesday’s judgement can be instinctively seen as negative for nationalists, it is actually highly likely that the longer-term implication is the continuing erosion of the relationship between Scotland and the centre of the UK.

The conundrum for supporters of Scottish independence, though, is that they may very well not have enough time to see that erosion come to fruition. I said at the start of this article that the Supreme Court judgement was a waypoint on this journey, but it is a journey which now has a visible and tangible end.

The most important question in Scottish politics, as of today, is whether or not Nicola Sturgeon will execute her strategy of making the presumed 2024 General Election a proxy referendum on independence.

The strategy is not wrong, per se. As Ms Sturgeon said on Wednesday after the judgement, in order to gain independence more than 50 per cent of people need to vote for it. However, it is fraught with danger, and because of that it needs to be well timed.

Current polling would question whether the 2024 election is the right time. A year ago, we might have envisaged a situation where the Tories were favourites to return to Downing Street, where Labour was still weak, and where the SNP might have been able to create a single-issue election where the only relevant matter was Scottish independence.

Now, though, that seems difficult to imagine. Polling shows that those Scots seeking to escape the Tories are fleeing to Labour, not to independence. And, at the next General Election, when the UK-wide debate will be about the economy and the cost-of-living crisis, and when Sir Keir Starmer looks likely to make a long-term move into 10 Downing Street, is it realistic to expect that in Scotland we will be able to isolate ourselves and focus only on independence?

I am not so sure. It would be easier to limit debate in a Holyrood election than it would in a Westminster one, and it is for that reason that I wonder whether Ms Sturgeon will march her army slightly further down the hill, in preparation for marching back up again at the Scottish Parliament election in 2026.

She only gets one shot at this. If she fights either of these elections as a proxy, and fails to get more than 50 per cent of the vote, then the unionists who excitedly tweet “It’s over” will be correct. It will be.

Of course, it needn't get to that fractious point. Reader, I work hard to retain an optimistic outlook even when our political debate tries to extract every last ounce of it from me. And, I am certain, that there will be a point in time over the next few years when the leading thinkers in the SNP, and the leading thinkers in unionism, will realise that their positions have more commonality than they currently understand.

Labour’s Scottish Leader, Anas Sarwar, indicated this week that he sees that. The constitutional status quo is now the preserve of the Tory Party which, much like in the 1990s, is facing decades of isolation as a result of its belligerence. But Labour is now almost certain to suggest a "new Unionism" which, if it does so properly, will create a significantly enhanced devolution settlement. In other words, it will speak to that large swathe of Scots who don’t love the UK, but don’t want to leave it either.

Will the SNP begin to see the benefit of an enhanced, more fluid settlement, which might look a little more like a confederation than a union? Why does one side have to lose, when we can all win?

Andy Maciver is Founding Director of Message Matters and Zero Matters

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