THE Crown, the robes, Black Rod, the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition obliged to indulge in awkward social badinage as they head for “another place” to hear the gracious speech.

The ceremonial attendant upon the State Opening of Parliament is designed to reassure the citizenry or, in this context, Her Majesty’s loyal subjects.

Continuity, the Crown in Parliament, this United Kingdom.

However, things change. This week the Queen, beset by mobility difficulties, was unable to attend. The speech was delivered from the slightly smaller Consort throne by Prince Charles.

The first time in two centuries that the speech had been read by the heir to the Throne, rather than the Monarch or a deputising Lord Chancellor.

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However, amid change, the message, drafted by the Sovereign’s Ministers, remained decidedly firm on the constitution.

Sinn Fein may have topped the poll in Northern Ireland. The SNP may be “cranking up” plans for a further Scottish independence referendum.

The view of the UK Government, as provided by the Prince, is that “the continued success and integrity of the whole of the United Kingdom is of paramount importance to Her Majesty’s government, including the internal economic bonds between all of its parts”.

The strength or weakness of those bonds is about to be tested, again.

Firstly, through continuing discourse over the Northern Ireland protocol and efforts by Boris Johnson and his Ministers to reform internal UK trading arrangements which used to be shaped by EU rules.

Expect contention over that in Scotland, where Team Sturgeon say it is about tearing up established rights. Expect a rebuttal from Team Johnson who say it is about liberating the economy.

But there is a second potential element to this. A rather more significant one. The prospect of that second referendum on independence.

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For months now, years indeed, that argument has largely been about process.

Who has the power to authorise it? Statute says Westminster. Nationalists say “the Scottish people”, although Nicola Sturgeon insists she is only interested in a statutory plebiscite which would be legally and internationally recognised.

Over the coming weeks, Ms Sturgeon hopes to shift the argument from process to substance by publishing, in iterative sequence, a series of Scottish Government papers on the case for independence.

In essence, these will be chapter headings from the White Paper which preceded the 2014 referendum. But substantially revised and updated – and published individually in the hope of sustaining attention, rather than swamping the voters with a collective mass of information.

At the same time, the SNP is preparing political attack lines on key issues which were prominent in 2014. The economy, pensions, the currency, health and social care, Europe and Scotland’s place in the world.

Team Sturgeon say it is in the interest of their opponents to keep talking about process. They say that is designed to engender uncertainty and create an impression of instability.

One example is the demand for Nicola Sturgeon to publish the legal advice she has received about the statutory basis for a further referendum.

Ms Sturgeon is understandably reluctant to publish. All governments need frank, private legal advice – rather than the cautious guidance which would be given if publication is presumed.

I expect the First Minister may respond to the precise ruling of the Information Commissioner by publishing limited chunks of content, rather than the entirety of the legal advice received.

Then she will hope to move on to substance, all with the aim of holding indyref2 in the latter half of next year.

Which prompts a range of thoughts. Firstly, such a date still seems somewhat unlikely, not least because the UK Government is presently resistant and Ms Sturgeon wants a formal poll, not a gesture.

It is possible that UK Ministers may shift their opinion. They may, at some point, calculate that it is in their interests – and, they would say, in the interests of the UK – to settle the question.

But soon? While we are still recovering from Covid? While we are still adjusting to the constitutional and economic aftermath of Brexit, six years on from the vote to leave the EU, contrary to the declared wishes of the people of Scotland?

Then there is the economy. If a ballot does happen in the relatively near future, it seems likely that the economy may still be struggling to revive.

I have seldom experienced such collective uncertainty as at present. Folk are, frankly, anxious and scared.

Which brings competing political calculations. Tories might – might – think that uncertainty would encourage Scottish voters to adhere to the Union, to “keep a-hold of nurse”, in Belloc’s phrase.

That would be, however, a tricky message to sell. Rather than stressing the challenges, post Brexit and pandemic, UK Ministers would again tender the “broad shoulders” of the UK economy.

Nationalists have been accustomed to base their case on confidence, urging Scots to “take back control”, to borrow a line from the EU Leave campaign.

Given current circumstances, there might – might – be a little more emphasis on escaping from that UK embrace. So long and thanks for all the problems you caused.

Either way, I do not think that it was tactically astute of the First Minister to link Scotland’s situation with that of Northern Ireland, as she appeared to do when she said that success for Sinn Fein would result in “fundamental changes to UK governance in the years to come”, including Scottish independence.

For decidedly good reason, Scottish politicians have stayed well out of the febrile politics of Northern Ireland, including its past history of violence.

Certainly, Ms Sturgeon stressed that co-operation across these islands would endure, whatever happened. And her aides say she was simply acknowledging the “new realities” in Northern Ireland, including Sinn Fein’s transformation to a modern, political party.

But, particularly for older Scots, the linkage with Northern Ireland could be a deterrent, rather than an encouragement. One SNP MSP told me that Ms Sturgeon’s remarks were a blunder.

In practice, I doubt whether she will pursue that linkage all that eagerly in future.

Rather, the broader debate in Scotland will revert to the core fault line in Scottish politics. Independence versus the Union.