YOU pretend to pay us and we'll pretend to work.

That was how citizens of the old Soviet Union coped with the open secret that the communist economy was, well, a joke. Scotland seems to have adopted a new variant with the SNP: you pretend to deliver independence and we'll pretend to vote for it.

Does anyone seriously believe that Nicola Sturgeon intends to hold a referendum next year, or the year after? In the aftermath of a pandemic, which may have further waves and variants? With the public finances wrecked and Scotland's economy on life-support from the UK? I think Scotland's voters have twigged: she's kidding on. It's an indy neverendum.

Ms Sturgeon’s remarks on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show on Sunday confirmed there has been zero preparation for an early indyref2, and suggested that it may be a very long time coming. She had no answers to crucial new questions about borders, finance and EU membership. The Government hasn't conducted an impact assessment because it knows very well what it would say. The London School of Economics did one recently and concluded that the cost to Scotland of creating a border with the UK would be two to three times the impact of Brexit.

We talk of Boris Johnson not being honest, but the SNP has been playing fast and loose with the truth all year by pretending that nothing has changed since Brexit and that independence can still be border-free. The First Minister kept insisting that there was no issue because "Scotland does not want a border and there needn't be one”. Marr at least got her to recognise that one would exist and that there would be “practical difficulties for trade”. That should have been the key moment in this election campaign.

At the very least a hard border with England requires checks on animals and foodstuffs – the kind of checks that have so antagonised unionists in Northern Ireland, who believe a de facto border has been created in the North Sea by the NI Protocol. Scotland's situation would in many ways be worse than that. The protocol was supposed to demonstrate that EU borders could be relaxed in certain circumstances to guarantee social harmony and economic continuity. This has not worked. Trade has been disrupted, the EU and UK are at legal loggerheads and violence has returned to the streets.

The EU will not be in the business of giving similar special status to Scotland: allowing it to remain part of the UK while rejoining the single market. It cannot risk another porous border weakening the integrity of the EU. This means a hard border in the true sense of the word – customs declarations, non-tariff barriers and possibly tariffs on goods passing through. The UK, for its part, will want immigration checks to avoid Scotland becoming a back door from Europe.

This isn't Project Fear, as in 2014 when Labour politicians like Ed Balls talked of border posts at Gretna. This is project reality. It is no good the First Minister insisting, as she did again at the weekend, that it's all Boris Johnson's fault, and that Scotland never wanted to leave the EU. It's happened; the world has changed.

I got short shrift at an SNP conference nearly two years ago for telling a fringe meeting that the case for independence would have to be remade from the ground up. Independence in Europe, the bedrock of SNP policy for 20 years, is over. I was a Yes voter in 2014, but that was for a very different proposition: one which assumed the entire UK remaining in the EU. That would have meant no border and no regulatory divergence because both Scotland and England were in the same single market.

Read more: Sturgeon’s border problem could possibly kill Yes vote stone dead

Ms Sturgeon now appears to concede that the case for independence is in need of revision. The 2013 Independence White Paper, which she largely drafted, is indeed redundant. That was all about the ABSENCE of borders; about retaining sterling and the EU. It was about continuity – creating a `”new UK” as Alex Salmond called it, in which Scotland assumed control of its economic affairs within the regulatory wrapper of the European Union.

A case for borders can still be made – though not as the SNP MSP Emma Harper made it last week by saying that a border with England would “create jobs”. That's like saying more prisons are a good idea because they employ more warders. National borders exist for a purpose, as the pandemic has demonstrated. They are the citizens' last line of defence against invasion by virus or foreign power; they are also what defines a democratic polity. Arguably, without a border, you have no democracy, which is why Scotland is ruled by Tory governments it hasn't voted for.

Nicola Sturgeon with SNP candidate Emma Harper in Wigtown yesterday

Nicola Sturgeon with SNP candidate Emma Harper in Wigtown yesterday

Read more: Alex Neil is right: the case for independence will have to be rewritten

But to make any positive case for borders you have to recognise that they exist. Brussels will certainly demand proper border discipline if Scotland is to rejoin the EU after independence. It will also demand budgetary discipline. The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates Scotland's current deficit is around 25 per cent of GDP, eight times the three per cent deficit limit under EU accession rules. That rule has been suspended during Covid, and it hasn't always been rigidly enforced in the past. But Scotland will still be required to show that it can get its spending under control. Pre-Covid, the SNP's own Sustainable Growth Commission said this could mean 10 years of budgetary restraint.

Ms Sturgeon said last week that Scotland would have had a referendum by now had it not been for the pandemic. Well, maybe. But Covid-19 was no excuse for avoiding home truths. It was an ideal opportunity for recasting of the case for independence for an age in which globalisation is in retreat across the world. After half a century in which borders have been seen as xenophobic and backward, they're becoming almost progressive again.

But why bother, says the SNP? Ms Sturgeon is piling up the votes, so why fix something that isn't broken? Well, one good reason is that Scots voters aren't stupid, and they might eventually discover that the joke is on them.

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