IT’S been a long and winding road, as Macca would put it, since the glory days of 2014 and the first Scottish independence referendum. The “Festival of Democracy” we called it. Even many unionist commentators were captivated by the campaign, which was on the whole very positive.

But I would say that wouldn’t I, since I voted Yes along with the 45%? I do understand that others may not have found the 2014 referendum so festive. They kept their own council and quietly turned out to vote No. This morning those “shy Noes” may quietly be dreading the prospect of another referendum to be held, according to Nicola Sturgeon yesterday, on October 19, 2023.

It’s been an even more winding road for the First Minister, who inherited the Yes campaign in 2014 and never seemed quite sure what to do with it. She presided over the tsunami General Election of 2015 in which the unionist parties where almost obliterated. That stunning victory would, in an earlier era, have itself been regarded as a mandate to open negotiations on independence forthwith.

But times change. Ms Sturgeon has insisted that a constitutional change of such magnitude can only be resolved by a referendum – a legal referendum that would be recognised by international bodies like the European Union.

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The precedent was established by the 2012 Edinburgh Agreement, struck between David Cameron and Alex Salmond. Westminster agreed to hand Holyrood the power under a so-called Section 30 Order to hold a plebiscite.

Ms Sturgeon made clear again yesterday that her proposed “consultative” referendum in 2023 must also be held under a Section 30 Order. She will not countenance an illegal “wildcat” referendum as attempted by her nationalist soulmates in Catalonia.

This much we already knew. What was novel in Ms Sturgeon’s statement yesterday was her proposal to use the Supreme Court of the UK to promote the case for that all-important Section 30 Order. This is what has sometimes been called called Plan B: an attempt to establish that it is already within Holyrood’s power to hold a consultative referendum.

However, the most obvious problem is one she anticipated in her own statement. Holyrood doesn’t have that power.

She pointed out that, technically, both the 2014 Scottish and the 2016 EU referendums were also consultative. The UK Parliament still had to legislate to leave the European Union. To hold a repeat of the 2014 referendum, even a consultative one, is not therefore down to the Supreme Court but to Westminster and ultimately the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson.

So we already know what the Supreme Court ruling will be. Just as in the Miller case in 2017, judges will say that the UK Parliament is “sovereign” in all instances. A legal referendum can only be held and implemented with Westminster’s agreement.

Ms Sturgeon’s is not a new legal route to independence. It is at best a kind of constitutional theatre, a series of court processes designed to tell us what we already know: that the only legal route to Scottish independence is a political one.

The ultimate objective, as Ms Sturgeon went on to make clear yesterday, is to turn the 2024 General Election into a de facto referendum on independence. She hopes that Scottish voters, after witnessing the shenanigans in the courts, will regard this as a single-issue General Election.

However, there is no obvious reason why they should. It is not for the government of the day or for any political party to rule that a General Election is about one single issue. The opposition parties will certainly claim that it cannot be, and that it is arrogant and undemocratic for the First Minister of Scotland to try to decide the issues on which voters vote.

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One suspects that, if Boris Johnson is still in Number 10, most voters in Scotland will be voting to get him out of there. That may or may not be a vote for independence.

She presumably hopes that the moral and political pressure will be so great by 2024 that no UK government can withstand it. Mr Johnson, or whoever succeeds him, will, Ms Sturgeon believes, simply have to honour the Scottish people’s “sovereign right”, as she put it, to decide on their future.

But not only has Mr Johnson said that now is not the time for a repeat referendum, so has the Leader of the Opposition, Sir Keir Starmer. It seems highly unlikely that, were he to win the 2024 General Election, Labour would be prepared to regard it as a de facto referendum on independence.

Nor is he apparently willing to consider a referendum as part of a coalition deal. Following last week’s by-elections, it is now possible to imagine Labour becoming the largest party in Westminster in 2024. Labour could in theory form some kind of minority government with SNP backing.

But Labour is doing everything possible right now to nip that prospect in the bud. Sir Keir doesn’t want to suggest that a vote for Labour might be a vote for breaking up the UK. Labour has painful memories of that Tory election poster showing Ed Miliband in Ms Sturgeon’s top pocket.

So it is back to square one. Unless or until it is clear that an overwhelming majority of Scots wish to leave the UK it is unlikely that Westminster will relent on a referendum. It will simply not be in the interest of any UK Prime Minister to risk it.

This is indeed a constitutional impasse and Ms Sturgeon suggested yesterday that it would be unwise for the UK to tell Scots that they are prisoners in the Union and they have no democratic means to leave it. However, even Ms Sturgeon must realise that there is not as yet overwhelming demand in Scotland for a referendum in the next five years.

Scotland remains split down the middle on independence. Holding a referendum under those circumstances would likely lead to a repeat of the chaos and discord that followed the narrow Leave victory in the 2016 EU referendum.

Indeed, there is no legal short cut to Scottish independence, post-Brexit. Scottish nationalists are in for the long haul.

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