Hear that? It’s the sound of silence. Earlier this summer, talk of an independence referendum finally went quiet. Like a broken car alarm, it had been drowning out discussion of just about everything else in Scotland for years.

No more. Since the SNP leadership contest descended into a big scrap and Nicola Sturgeon spent a day being questioning by the police, even most nationalists have stopped mentioning it, at least in public. Humza Yousaf’s Programme for Government speech made no reference to it.

Discussion of a referendum has become unobtrusive and occasional.

Most people will have few regrets about that.

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The problem is not the legitimate, honourable aspiration to have another vote, but the highly theoretical nature of the whole question and the dominant position it’s had in Scottish politics for 10 years.

Rightly or wrongly, there hasn’t been a single moment since 2014 when the Scottish Government has looked like it has been in a position to deliver a second independence referendum. My eight-year-old asked me the other day what would happen if there were a volcanic eruption on Arthur’s Seat. She wanted an action plan, because “it could happen”.

There have been times when discussion of a referendum has felt a bit like that. It’s had a fictional quality. With the UK Government feeling no obligation to agree to a vote so soon after the last one, with polls consistently showing a lack of enthusiasm out there in Scotland for another one any time soon and with voters evenly split between Yes and No, the political pressure for one just hasn’t been there, even with a majority of independence-supporting MSPs at Holyrood. The magma chamber is half empty.

Yet if Arthur’s Seat had erupted, and Nicola Sturgeon had had her way, we would have been in the feverish final stages of a referendum campaign right now.

Ms Sturgeon announced the vote would be held on Thursday October 19, 2023 – five weeks from now.

In this alternative reality, Sauchiehall Street would have been full of people in kilts and Saltire capes right now, handing out leaflets. The BBC would have devised a new referendum graphic. We’d have been picking over televised debates. A tetchy argument would be taking place about which side’s cybersupporters were more unpleasant. Neil Oliver would be saying batty things, and Yes strategists would be having sleepless nights trying to manage Alex Salmond. The nature of the Scotland-England border would be dominating radio phone-ins. Families would be divided. Some would be high on emotion. Others would be hating every minute of it.

Of course it never happened because the Supreme Court predictably ruled that Holyrood didn’t have the competence to hold it.

And so instead, for the first time in ages, with the constitutional question in abeyance, we’ve been talking about Other Things.

For the last six months, the focus of Holyrood’s debate has noticeably changed. The chat has been about actual stuff, like hospitals and the cost of living and ferries and heat pumps and housing and schools and regulating short-term lets, rather than the ifs, maybes and whens of independence. Even the SNP’s special conference on independence strategy in June was a muted affair.

It’s a much more productive way for MSPs to spend their time.

It’s not just falling public support for the SNP that’s responsible for this change, but its list of failures in government. In recent months, ministers have had to defend poor performance on the overdue, overbudget western isles ferries and the creaking state of CalMac’s fleet; record numbers of homeless ; drugs deaths; the schools attainment gap; NHS waiting lists; ministers’ ropey relationship with business; the deposit return scheme; and the overdue dualling of the A9. What all of these have in common is that they are issues of long-term management. After 16 years of SNP government, the opposition can either show clearly that ministers’ own targets have been missed or that ministers have failed to prevent foreseeable problems they were warned about. Mr Yousaf has been getting flak for all of it.

The only appropriate response is one of humility. That wouldn’t sit well with strutting about demanding another referendum.

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This isn’t a settled situation. The current peace and quiet around a second vote won’t last. The issue will arise at the SNP conference next month. Delegates will pick over Mr Yousaf’s underwhelming proposition that if independence-supporting parties win a majority of Scottish seats at the General Election, it will be used to pressure the UK Government on a second referendum or even to start negotiating independence. This in turn is a rehash of Ms Sturgeon’s de facto referendum, though with the bar set lower on majority of seats rather than votes.

So the issue is still there. Impatient independence supporters will expect Mr Yousaf to justify his narrowly-won position as party leader by pushing hard to make independence magically happen, so a degree of Sturgeon-style theatrics are inevitable. It’s unsurprising that Mr Yousaf is intent on a showdown with Westminster over the Gender Recognition Act in spite of fracturing support for it at Holyrood and voter misgivings.

He will want to make Labour squirm by demanding assurances that if Sir Keir Starmer enters Downing Street, he will honour the Scottish people’s democratic will expressed at the ballot box by agreeing to a second referendum. That’s in spite of the obvious dangers to himself in that approach. The SNP leader has proposed a plan to push for a referendum that hinges on winning a majority of pro-independence MPs, but his ability to win those seats - even on a voting system that massively benefits the SNP - looks more uncertain than ever.

But that’s where we’re headed, and when we get there, all the chat about the metaphysics of referendums and pseudo-referendums will return.

For now, though, its absence has brought about a broadening in the public debate. It has come out of the realm of constitutional fantasy to focus on everyday reality. It’s a refreshing change and gives us a small glimpse of what Holyrood would be like if we finally resolved the biggest question in Scottish politics.