IF you’re a Scottish nationalist it would be understandable if you felt the prospect of independence has never seemed more distant. The appointment of Mike Russell last month to the post of "Political Director" of the SNP’s "Independence Unit" was supposed to signal a sense of renewed purpose to the task of securing a second referendum. Instead, it has shifted the movement down a gear – from gradual to glacial.

You don’t get to hold such a position in the SNP by previously having shown any tendency towards independence of thought from the mind-set of the party leadership. Mr Russell immediately set himself to the task for which he’d been chosen by Nicola Sturgeon: to contain enthusiasm and downgrade expectations. A second referendum, he told supporters, should only be held “at the right time to win the campaign and the vote”.

Let’s leave aside (for now) the curious concept of a party whose entire existence rests on self-determination requiring to have such a thing as an "Independence Unit". Here was me naively thinking that the Cabinet and the rest of the elected members was the "Independence Unit". Let’s also examine more closely what might be meant by “the right time to win the campaign and the vote”. If the party is waiting for a moment of truth that will signal a degree of certainty about the outcome of a second referendum on independence then it’s kidding itself … or it’s kidding the members. I’m leaning towards the latter.

Indeed, you might reasonably have believed that a run of 15 consecutive opinion polls until May of this year indicating majority support for independence met the standard of “the right time”. Ah, but there was a pandemic on and so these didn’t count. Ms Sturgeon and her chosen acolytes now tell us that Covid must first be defeated.

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Yet, if the UK Government’s new Health Minister, Sajid Javid is right and that we must all learn to live with the pandemic then this would suggest that Covid will not be defeated any time soon, only contained. Scotland’s First Minister, by indicating further easing of restrictions in the face of rising infection rates, seems to be in agreement with Mr Javid. Thus, there is no “fighting the Covid” justification for getting down to the serious work of organising a second referendum.

A series of unfortunate events have fallen kindly for the SNP leadership to justify its sedate approach to pursuing the goal which provides it with its primary reason for existing. The UK’s chaotic separation from Europe; the advent of Covid-19 and the rapid realisation that the conduct of the UK Government makes The Sopranos look like The Teletubbies have all come together to reinforce the SNP’s credentials as an effective and competent party of government.

No one was surprised at Michael Gove’s recent dismissal of Ian Blackford’s commitment to independence. “Ian’s a lovely chap and a good friend. Ian enjoys being in Westminster so much, I suspect that he probably wouldn’t want a referendum any time soon either. I mean, you know, he’s a lovely part of the Westminster furniture.” Mr Gove’s contemptuous apercu might also apply to many in the SNP’s Westminster boys club.

It chimes with suspicions across the wider Yes movement that the SNP has ditched independence in favour of using their inordinately lengthy tenure to enact a kind of cultural revolution in Scotland in which open debate and free speech are giving way to government by group-think. The proposed Hate Crime legislation and its subjugation of what it means to be a woman implicit in its commitment to Gender Reform are the party’s weapons of choice to bring about this new model of planned living.

Michael Gove’s mocking dismissal of Mr Blackford and Boris Johnson’s challenge to the vexillographers of England to make the world’s biggest cross of St George are little more than a trolling of Scottish independence. They simply don’t take the prospect seriously. Scotland is little more than a vanity project for the Johnson administration, something to be brought out and handed round your business partners like the golden telephone in The Godfather.

Yet, it wasn’t so long ago that Nicola Sturgeon admitted the possibility of challenging the UK Government’s 20-year-old power of veto on constitutional matters. On Brexit Day last year she said: “The issue of whether the specific constitutional reservation in the Scotland Act puts any form of independence referendum outside the powers of the Scottish Parliament – or instead leaves open scope for a non-binding consultative vote – has never been tested in court.”

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Building on the First Minister’s intriguing observation Joanna Cherry addressed the task of creating a tactical strategy in the face of Boris Johnson’s intransigence over granting a Section 30 order. In an online lecture to the Wales Centre for Governance last November Ms Cherry outlined in some detail how this might work.

“It is my view,” she said “that if the pro-independence referendum parties obtain a majority at the Scottish election next year and the PM refuses to come to the table to negotiate a second Edinburgh Agreement, the avenue which the FM contemplated earlier this year should be pursued."

It would require a carefully crafted Bill to be piloted through Holyrood.

Then, when the inevitable legal challenge came, it would be for the courts to decide whether the Bill passed was within the competence of the Scottish Parliament and, thus, whether the referendum so authorised could proceed. They would do so by a process of statutory interpretation. The case would undoubtedly end up in the UK Supreme Court.

If they found the Bill to be within competence, then we would have a lawful referendum. And one which would be hard for unionists to boycott. If we lost then I do not believe we would be any further back than the stalemate that will ensue if Boris Johnson digs his heels in.”

It’s frankly astonishing that the SNP leadership has done little work on this. All that has occurred in the intervening period is that the messenger, Ms Cherry, has suffered the same fate as many of those present when that golden telephone was being handed round.

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