Euan McColm: SNP and the Tories both know their pledges are  a deception

Inevitably, the campaign for next month’s Holyrood elections is dominated by the constitutional question. Seven years after the Yes campaign failed in its attempt to break up the United Kingdom, there is to be no respite from the row over whether Scotland should be an independent country. The battle grinds on.

Scottish Conservative Leader Douglas Ross
Scottish Conservative Leader Douglas Ross

In the yellow corner, SNP leader and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon promises her supporters that she plans to hold Indyref2 sometime in the next two years, claiming that it will form part of the post-coronavirus recovery.

In the blue corner, Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross warns unionists that the only way to prevent Sturgeon carrying out her promise (or threat, depending on your patience for referendums) is to back his party in May.

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Other parties sit in differently coloured corners talking about different things but, really, the constitution’s what it’s all about.

Scottish Conservative Leader Douglas Ross outside New Stobhill Hospital in Glasgow, for the announcement of the party's NHS spending pledge

In the exhausting and unhealthy codependent relationship between the SNP and the Tories, both parties must pretend that the other is telling the truth. To fail to do that would be to expose their own positions as the absolute nonsense they are.

Sturgeon must insist a referendum is just around the corner because, well, without that, what’s the point of Scottish nationalists backing her party? Likewise, Ross must insist that only he can stop a referendum because otherwise unionists might decide to dabble with Anas Sarwar’s Labour Party.

The truth is that both Sturgeon and Ross know there is no prospect of a second referendum unless Prime Minister Boris Johnson decides he fancies gambling. Without a section 30 order from Westminster, Sturgeon cannot hold the legal referendum she wants. It follows, then, that without that order, Ross need do nothing to prevent a referendum taking place.

On the day before parliament broke-up for the campaign, the Scottish Government published a draft referendum bill. This allowed Sturgeon to say to excitable nationalists that, look, she was taking action, that the game was on.

Nicola Sturgeon on the campaign trail

But this draft bill is paper thin, containing little more than a pledge that a referendum will take place at a time to be agreed by MSPs sitting in the next Holyrood session. There is no detail of how the referendum might be established nor are there any answers, which one might expect, to the big questions on issues such as currency and EU membership.

The reason there are no answer to these questions is, and I hope I’m not starting to labour the point, there is no need to find answers when there will be no referendum. Ah, say SNP politicians, but we’ve also published a plan for how a referendum will be staged. This 11 step blueprint was written a couple of months ago by constitution secretary Mike Russell and it is absolute nonsense.

Russell’s first step is for the Scottish Government to ask the UK Government for the authority to hold a referendum. If this request is rebuffed, then he suggests moving to step two which would see the Scottish Government go ahead and hold a perfectly legal referendum, anyway.

I’m bound to say that if step two was viable, it would be step one. But Russell and Sturgeon face pressure from the SNP’s fundamentalist wing, members of which would gladly hold an illegal Catalan-style referendum tomorrow and luxuriate in the martyrdom that would follow when its result was ruled null and void and so they must give the impression that things are moving they way they want. The activists are hungry and red meat must be thrown. When Sturgeon fails, post-election, to deliver a referendum, those activists will realise they were being fed Quorn but by then Sturgeon will be back in office.

Ross and his Tory colleagues know that Sturgeon is bluffing about holding a referendum but rather than point this out, they play along. This tells us that the Scottish Conservatives are far from confident of sustaining the revivification started under Ruth Davidson. Fearful of losing the seats it gained in 2016, the Tory Party wants unionists to believe the UK is in immediate danger. Ross’s big idea is to scare voters into backing his party and that might make political sense but it’s nothing of which to be proud.

Since she succeeded Alex Salmond as First Minister in 2014, Sturgeon has repeatedly promised her supporters that independence is just around the corner. The results of elections - and of the Brexit referendum - have all been cited by the First Minister as evidence that Scots must be given the right to choose whether the UK has had its day.

But no amount of talking about mandates can conjure up an actual mandate. No amount of votes for the SNP can compel the Prime Minister to sign that section 30 order and set in motion Indyref2.

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic will give Sturgeon some space on the constitutional question after she, inevitably, leads the SNP to victory in May.

But the point will come when her supporters might start to ask whether she’s been stringing them along. The answer to that question is “yes, of course she has, haven’t you been paying the slightest bit of attention?”

If Alex Salmond manages to slither back into Holyrood as a member of the Alba Party, he will increase the pressure on Sturgeon to take a reckless approach to independence. He and his acolytes will demand a plan B that doesn’t exist.

Nicola Sturgeon has made it clear that she believes independence can only be achieved through a legally sound referendum which is recognised, internationally, as such.

Since that won’t happen for as long as Boris Johnson remains in 10 Downing Street, the current battle between the SNP and the Tories is based on a deception in which both are complicit.