A CONSENSUS is emerging that, as foretold in this column, an unenviable choice now faces the Scottish Government.

Absent Westminster’s consent for a second independence referendum, Scottish Ministers have two options, neither of them attractive. The first is to push through Holyrood legislation that copies and pastes from 2014 and seeks to re-run IndyRef1. Such legislation is bound to be stopped in the Supreme Court, the Scottish Parliament lacking the legal powers to take such a step.

The alternative is to hollow out the referendum to get around this legal impediment, insisting that its purpose is not to end the Union (a reserved matter) but simply to consult the Scottish people and that its effect is, in legal terms, nil.

Such a go-it-alone referendum would be lawful, but it would also be pointless, not least because those opposed to doing this whole damn thing again will stay at home, ignore it, and boycott the vote.

That the Scottish Ministers do not want to have to adopt either option is the reason, one must surmise, why even now there is no IndyRef2 Bill. Last week saw the publication of a vacuous government paper that claimed to make the case for independence—in reality it did no such thing—but there has been no Bill. And without a Bill there can be no referendum.

Whatever happens from here Nicola Sturgeon’s preferred timetable for IndyRef2—for a vote to be held next year—is dead in the water. It is not going to happen for, if that timetable had been on track, a Bill would not only have been published by now but its Holyrood consideration would be well underway.

Like Britain’s trains, the Scottish Government’s plans have hit the buffers. Perhaps ScotRail can produce some sort of emergency timetable to plug the gap?

Or perhaps, rather more seriously, we need to think again. Readers will not be surprised to learn that I do not want a second independence referendum. There are several reasons for this. To descend once again into the division and toxic hostility of the first one which, far from being a carnival of colour, was a horrible experience for most of us, fills me with dread.

I worry also about the result—I fear that Scotland, in an understandable fit of anger at the present UK government, would make a foolish but irreversible decision that would set back our nation’s prosperity by decades.

But more than anything I want us to avoid IndyRef2 because the lesson of both 2014 and of the Brexit referendum two years later is that such referendums, despite all their bitter unpleasantness, do not resolve anything.

They open wounds rather than allowing them to heal and close. They don’t answer big questions—they leave them hanging. In short, they don’t work.

There has been no closure on the question of Scotland’s constitutional future despite all the promises to that effect made in the 2014 campaign. And the Brexit referendum in June 2016 was followed by the worst political chaos in living memory. Parliament in free-fall. Not one but two rapid and ill-considered changes of prime minister. Successive general elections. Unprecedented Supreme Court cases to stop the government acting unlawfully.

It took three-and-a-half years of incessant wrangling, following that referendum, before the UK finally exited and, even now, key aspects of how we exited are being revisited as ever more observers come to the conclusion that, whatever one’s political perspective, the Northern Ireland protocol just is not working.

For the truth is that both the 2014 IndyRef and the 2016 Brexit referendum were profoundly flawed. They were both votes about a loose aspiration—a vague idea in principle—rather than a detailed plan. Those who preferred the change option (Yes in 2014; Leave in 2016) had no idea what they were voting for, or for what they would actually get if their preference was successful in the ballot box.

Just as Leave won by assembling an impossibly broad coalition who all wanted different things out of Brexit—which is why it all came unstuck in those long years of wrangling after the vote—so, too, would any Yes coalition find, the day after they won, that they had deeply divided ideas about what sort of independence they wanted.

In or out of the European Union? In or out of Nato? A republic or a monarchy? To borrow the currency of a foreign power or to adopt a new currency of one’s own?

A hard trading border with England (and Northern Ireland), or acceptance through gritted teeth of the UK’s internal market rules, in order to keep trade flowing? And what then for any aspirations to join the EU, whose single market rules would require something quite different? Etc, etc.

Given that neither the 2014 vote in Scotland not the 2016 vote on Brexit resolved anything very much, I do wonder why anyone still thinks this is the best way of making momentous constitutional decisions.

Would it not be better to figure out what the options are first and only then ask the people in a plebiscite to indicate whether they like those options or not? This is what Australia did when it thought about replacing the monarchy. It’s also what the UK did when it thought about replacing the first-past-the-post system used for elections to the House of Commons.

Such an approach to referendums would certainly break the logjam currently stifling Scottish politics. Let’s figure out what independence would actually look like in practice—what it would actually entail—first and, only then, only after we have done that, ask the people whether they think Scottish independence really is what they want.

There would be no arguments in the campaign about what would happen to the currency, to the border, to Trident, or as regards the EU, because we would already know.

Wouldn’t that be a more grown-up way of doing our business?


* Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.