In many ways, the biggest political development of this week was the Supreme Court ruling that a referendum bill would be outside the competence of the Scottish parliament. This unanimous decision – and the fact that the UK government isn’t budging on a Section 30 order which would allow another referendum – means Nicola Sturgeon is being forced to fall back on her plan to try and turn the next election into a de facto referendum on independence. As I say in the Times today, this is a risky strategy.
But even if Sturgeon falls short of the majority of the vote she is seeking in 2024, unionists will still have questions to answer. How do they reduce support for independence in the medium term? And in what circumstances would they accept another referendum?
Ruling one out indefinitely would be a mistake. It would be better for unionists to strike a reasonable tone, make clear they are not saying never. They should channel the Justice Potter Stewart’s line about obscenity — ‘I know it when I see it’ — when it comes to the circumstances in which the UK government would agree to grant a Section 30 order.
Right now, it isn’t credible to claim Scotland is being held in the Union against its will: polls suggest that ‘no’ to independence has a slight lead. But if public opinion changes — senior SNP figures used to use the benchmark of support for independence being at 60 per cent for a year — there would be a clear and pragmatic case for another vote.
Sturgeon is trying to equate the cause of Scottish independence with democracy — which would be easier to swallow if her side were more prepared to respect the ‘once in a generation’ nature of the 2014 vote.