The next stage of Nicola Sturgeon’s long journey seems clear. She has committed the SNP to introducing an independence Bill in Holyrood (after Boris Johnson has refused a Section 30 to allow Holyrood to take a decision on one).
The legality of the Bill will be challenged, and the matter will surely end up in front of the Supreme Court: the Prime Minister has the option of either acting himself, or leaving it to someone else to do so.
The court’s constitutionally illiterate prorogation verdict is a worrying precedent. But Brenda Hale is gone, and the revised court seems less inclined to rock the Government’s boat. Perhaps we read too much into an unrelated decision, but its uncompromising verdict in the Shamima Begum case – it refused her leave to return to the UK – suggests that the court is in no mood to take risks.
If it rules as expected, much will turn, as ever, on Scotland’s voters. Sturgeon has other business to get on with – dealing with what will hopefully be the final stages of the Covid pandemic; a coming OECD report on education in Scotland; gender recognition reform, which has divided her own party; a reshuffle.
Alex Salmond’s Alba enterprise flopped in these elections, and a source of pressure on her immediate referendum action has thus been neutralised. So the first Minister is likely to talk loudly but act slowly – seeking gradually to turn round polls which are showing no majority for independence, and have shown none for it without an SNP majority in Holyrood, which these elections have failed to deliver.
Sturgeon will be banking on an English refusal to grant Scotland a referendum – as she will present it – Boris Johnson’s unpopularity in Scotland, and the pro-referendum majority in Holyrood to deliver a shift in mood. And she will claim that Scotland’s Parliament, with the SNP and the Greens combined, now has its biggest-ever pro-referendum number of MPs.
The Prime Minister and other Unionists will argue that Sturgeon failed to win a majority twice over. First, because the SNP itself didn’t gain one. Second, because the two pro-referendum parties between them won 49 per cent of the vote – neither a majority nor a convincing platform for another referendum. And they will say that the Scottish Government has plenty else to be getting on with.
If a Johnson refusal could put wind in Sturgeon’s sails, boosting her cause among uncommitted, reflexively anti-Johnson but independence-sceptic voters, then any prospect of a wildcat ballot would be likely to take it out. The civil service and police would be legally obliged not to co-operate, assuming the Supreme Court rules as expected.
The First Minister could seek an advisory ballot – but Unionists would boycott it, and Unionist-led local councils would drag their feet. All in all, there is every prospect of stalemate: the Conservatives are still second, which will help to consolidate Douglas Ross’ position; Anas Sarwar isn’t going anywhere; Willie Rennie has doubled his majority.
Sturgeon’s long journey is likely to go on for even longer – as Johnson says not “never” but “not yet” to another referendum, and she replies not “now” but “soon”. She will knuckle down, and seek to turn the next general election into a referendum on independence in itself, hoping that Scotland’s voters lose patience with the Prime Minister’s “not yet” mantra.
Or she has an alternative. Look at the facts this way. Covid management seems to have strengthened Mark Drakeford in Cardiff as well as Johnson in London. But despite it, Johnson’s unpopularity, and Brexit, she has now failed to gain a Holyrood majority – second time round. Salmond remains the only SNP to date who has delivered one. In that sense, Sturgeon has taken the SNP backwards.
She has been First Minister and SNP leader for the best part of seven years. Will she trudge on for long if the courts deny her a referendum?
Probably: after all, the next election could come as soon as 2023, in the wake of the expected demise of the Fixed Terms Parliament Act. And we don’t read Sturgeon as a quitter. But if she goes, you read it here first.