Today’s High Court ruling on the Scottish Government’s bid to hold an independence referendum was unanimous and final: the constitution and the Union are protected by Westminster as a protected matter.
While the Miller II judgment lacked sufficient precedent and historical understanding to create certainty in the Alice in Wonderland world, there was little doubt as to where the authority for a mandatory referendum lay.
Nicola Sturgeon tried to block this by suggesting that the Scottish Government’s proposed referendum would be advisory only – although it is a certainty that the decision would have gone the other way, her supporters would insist that any plebiscite ultimately follows the same ethos. weight as in 2014.
If the Supreme Court were to rule in favor of the SNP, it would likely open a very ugly political chapter indeed. The Scottish government would give the green light to proceed with a referendum entirely on its own terms: its own question, its own timetable and its own franchise.
The government could legislate to prevent this; alternatively, union members could simply boycott the survey. This would probably not constitute the international legal means by which any successful bid for Scottish independence would need to be implemented.
But it wouldn’t really matter. The outcome would perfectly suit the SNP’s immediate political needs. The dull litany of their domestic failures (recorded almost weekly in the red, white and blue column) would be swept from the front pages; the growing differences in the separatist movement would be forgotten in the heat of the renewed battle.
And if the end result wasn’t actually independence – and it probably wouldn’t have been if Westminster hadn’t plumbed new depths of frustration – the Nats would have lived through their own great betrayal, a story to comfort and strengthen their foundations for a generation.
But it was not to be, and now Sturgeon is in a truly devastating position.
Officially, his backup plan is to use the next general election as a vote for independence. The logic is that if the SNP’s vote (or perhaps the combined vote of the breakaway parties) exceeds 50 per cent, it will be a mandate for independence.
Many nationalists are very concerned about this, and rightly so. Unlike the Scottish Tories, in the distant past the Nationalists have never won a majority of the popular vote in a Scottish election; indeed, they often try to play down the secession issue during election campaigns so as not to scare away swing voters.
Even if they do in the next election, it is simply not a constitutional mandate for independence. There is no reason for any British government to start negotiations. Also, it will not be able to gain serious support on the world stage.
Any such effort essentially amounts to a unilateral declaration of independence. While Sturgeon may be many things, she is no Ian Smith by inclination.
His problem is simply that he is running out of time. When he first succeeded Alex Salmond after the 2014 referendum, there was much to hope for. He was the admired leader of a separatist movement that was stronger than ever.
In 2015, his party reshaped Scotland’s electoral map and nearly destroyed the pro-UK parties in Westminster; In 2016, England and Wales voted for Brexit, allowing him to reopen the issue of independence, this time with the instinctive sympathy of many London progressives.
And yet, and yet. Polls stubbornly refused. The consistent majority he once held to be a prerequisite for a successful bid for independence has not materialized. A network of fissures began to appear in the separatist movement. And the failure of his ministers to actually govern Scotland continues to grow.
He is now the longest serving Prime Minister ever. He remains a rare front-runner politician with no obvious successor in his ranks or challenger on the opposition benches. But the road to independence is closed.
So, perhaps, with this absurd and completely out of character gambling attorney vote. It seems more likely that the separatist cause will not be hit unnecessarily; even if successful on its own terms, it probably won’t secure independence.
But it would give Sturgeon a note to bow to. Salmond hit, it was his. Good luck with the movement, but there is more to life than an endless death march with NHS crises and ferry fiascos, thank you very much.
If this creates a problem for the Scottish government, it should provide an opening for the British government. With the threat of a referendum completely off the table, ministers now have room to press ahead with efforts to expand the footprint of the British state and hold devolved offices to better account for their actions.
Without a major battle for independence, the SNP’s woeful record on transport, health, education and more is ripe for attack.
Unfortunately, such attempts seem unlikely to materialize. There is still no agreement at the top of the government on the best way to tackle the separatist threat or use the powers provided by the UK’s Internal Market Act. The Commonwealth department has not been restructured and Michael Gove, who is nominally responsible for Commonwealth strategy, is also responsible for the two big jobs of promotion and housing.
It looks like once again the Conservatives will pass this opportunity to them – and eventually pass the torch to Labour, so Gordon Brown can use it to torch the parts of the constitution that New Labor couldn’t get to. Before 2010.