HERE’S a counter-factual to reflect upon this week. If Scotland had voted Yes in 2014, would Brexit have happened in 2016? I very much doubt it.

David Cameron, or rather his successor, would surely not have risked a referendum on leaving the European Union after such a disaster as Scotland voting to leave the United Kingdom. The Westminster Government would anyway be up to its oxters in negotiations with Scotland over borders, currency, debt, Trident ... There just wouldn’t have been the bandwidth to cope with another massive constitutional upheaval.

But of course, Scotland voted No in 2014 by a decisive majority. Mr Cameron went ahead with the Brexit referendum in 2016 thinking it was a slam dunk for Remain. It wasn’t. So we are where we are.

Remainers console themselves by tweeting told-you-so's about trade and the Northern Ireland Protocol. But the UK will not be rejoining the European Union in the foreseeable future. Vaccine nationalism by Brussels was bad enough, but the imposition of a regulatory border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK will only harden Brexit opinion.

Read more: Nicola Sturgeon is kidding about indyref2 and voters will soon twig

The NI border trouble is beginning to weigh heavily on the minds of independence supporters in Scotland. There is no way around it: leaving the UK, post-Brexit, will a create a hard border with England and a massive currency headache for the provisional government of an independent Scotland. The SNP, having realised this, has opted for denial. Nicola Sturgeon has said precisely nothing of substance about the constitutional future despite last month’s landslide “mandate” for indyref2.

But politics like nature abhors a vacuum, and while the First Minister waits for a referendum that will never come, others are busy reviving the constitutional equivalent of flared trousers: devo max.

Maximum devolution went out of fashion after 2012, when Mr Cameron insisted on a binary referendum. But it’s suddenly being talked up in the most surprising places. The Alba MP Kenny MacAskill shocked many Alba members last week by calling for “home rule” as an alternative to the present indyref deadlock. He has lost any confidence in Ms Sturgeon as an agent of change. Home rule, the original devo max, has a respectable history, here and in Ireland. It might, Mr MacAskill says, “break the log jam”.

Perhaps he’s right. An unlikely coalition of devo-maxers has emerged from the the closet recently. The former Labour front bencher Neil Findlay, and the Red Paper Collective called last month for maximum devolution of economic powers to deal with Scotland’s social problems. One of our leading academic authorities on nationalism, Professor Jim Mitchell of Edinburgh University, has been arguing for a “third way” that will avoid another divisive referendum. Like many on the nationalist left, he wants to avoid the kind of chaos and angst that the Brexit referendum left in its wake.

Kenny MacAskill has called for “home rule” as an alternative to the present indyref deadlock

Kenny MacAskill has called for “home rule” as an alternative to the present indyref deadlock

The former Labour MEP David Martin is also worried about social division. Before he left the European Parliament, where he specialised on constitutional issues, Mr Martin had moved toward Yes on the Scottish Question. He is now calling for what he calls “independence in the UK” which sounds like an oxymoron but is a form of asymmetrical federalism.

Under this version of devo max, Scotland would assume completely control of its economy: tax spending and borrowing. The late Donald Dewar once called for something similar back in the day. Further back still this used to labelled “dominion status” when applied to former colonies like Canada and Australia in the 1940s.

Scotland’s “independence” would still be severely constrained under this arrangement, not least by retaining the pound. But that would also have been the case had Scotland voted Yes in 2014. Indeed, Alex Salmond always said his objective was to create a “new UK” based on partnership by self-governing states under the Crown. The 1603 Union would have remained even as the 1707 Union was revoked. The 2013 independence White Paper envisaged a continuing “social union”, guaranteed by common membership of the EU.

That 2014 project is clearly dead. But there may now be space opening for a new constitutional settlement along similar lines but without a referendum. Mind you, it would require a lot more than another Vow, or another Smith Commission. To be taken seriously it would have to atone for the breach of trust over the Sewel Convention. That was supposed to ensure that Westminster could not legislate in devolved areas without Holyrood’s consent. But we now know that Sewel wasn’t worth the paper it wasn’t printed on.

Read more: SNP needs to remake case for independence

Perhaps something like the Downing Street Declaration of 1993 might work. A statement that Westminster had no “selfish, strategic or economic interest” in Scotland might be the basis for change, as it was in Ireland. The declaration would make clear that Scotland is a sovereign nation, but that it would agree to “pool sovereignty” (rather like states in the EU) in the areas of currency, foreign affairs, strategic defence. That is pretty much the substance of Mr Martin’s “independence in the UK”.

Many nationalists would scoff, especially if this new arrangement were brokered by Prince William after his grandmother passes away. It may sound naive. But what is the alternative?

If a second independence referendum were, by some remote chance, to happen, the best the independence movement could hope for is a narrow victory for Yes. That result would be contested by the unionist minority, just as the Leave vote was resisted by the Remain minority – Ms Sturgeon included – all the way to the Supreme Court.

Independistas have to ask themselves: do they continue with fruitless bickering over an independence referendum that, if it ever happened, would cause a decade of social instability? Scotland is not as far from the politics of Northern Ireland as we’d

like to think.

The SNP is anyway committed to “fiscal autonomy”, which is devo max by another name. Tory and northern Labour MPs would be happy to see the end of the discredited Barnett Formula. The SNP is pro NATO so there need be no strategic issues.

Scotland and England will have to coexist on this small island. Devo-maxers think they can achieve the same objectives as 2014, only without the referendum. Who knows: they may be right.

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