While Nicola Sturgeon’s annual calls for a referendum next year – any year but this year – may be likely to run longer than The Mousetrap, this is a performance I suspect she neither expects nor wishes to ever reach the denouement of one actually being held. It is a play. A charade. A pantomime. One where the audience need never cry “he’s behind you”, but where they might point out there is nothing behind it.
If there was any doubt that there is no case for another referendum, a quick look at the Lord Advocate’s submission to the Supreme Court removes it. A lawyer of some standing and intellect, she may well have been embarrassed to submit it.
If not, she surely must have been when someone in the SNP, perhaps one of their army of press officers, decided to help her with her homework and enter their own submission.
Let’s look at the ‘known knowns’. We know the Scottish Parliament does not have the power to hold a referendum on the constitution. We know Ms Sturgeon does not expect to be granted it. We know that she wants to take her faux outrage to a new level after being denied one, to cover her own administration’s appalling record in government, and use the issue of a referendum as an election strategy.
But what she wants to keep ‘unknown’, especially to her own side, is how little she has done to prepare for winning a referendum. If I were a nationalist, I would be truly furious with her.
When Sinn Fein became the largest single party at the Stormont Assembly, former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern was asked about the prospects of a border poll in Ireland. He said that while he wanted one and hoped for a united Ireland, there was a huge amount of work to be done before it could be contemplated. He argued the people of Ulster would need to be given details of how change would work if they were ever even asked to vote on it.
Ms Sturgeon has done nothing whatsoever to prepare for Scotland leaving the UK. There has been not one word on how our relationship with the rest of the UK would function. We may be paying for her civil servants to pump out papers on the economic miracle of Andorra and how we could be just like them, but no work has been done on the practicalities of separation.
Instead, we are expected to believe that a First Minister who, with seemingly endless cash, couldn’t negotiate a contract for two ferries with a Scottish shipyard desperate for work is perfectly prepared to negotiate with the best in Whitehall on how Scotland leaves the UK. She apparently thinks the people of Scotland are so poor in judgement, small in mind, and stupid that they can believe an administration unable to run a census can build a new nation.
On the crucial question of currency, the First Minister still does not have an answer on what a separate Scotland would use despite outsourcing the issue to her favourite PR firm. We can only conclude that this is not a serious attempt at either holding a referendum or making a case for separation worth considering.
Instead, it is like adopting the tactics of the lonely saloon-bar drunk, trying to provoke the people of Scotland into a fight they do not want by assuring them that the rest of the UK doesn’t care about them, and continually asking: “Are you going to let them talk to you like that?”
The truth is that Liz Truss was right when she said that our First Minister is an attention seeker, a fact not lost on most Scots she needs to persuade. Both Ms Truss and Rishi Sunak are more in touch with the feelings of the people of Scotland when they say no to holding a referendum than Ms Sturgeon is in calling for one.
Unable to make a case for separation, she has no argument for holding a referendum, which recent experience shows settles nothing. The 2014 Scottish referendum and the Brexit referendum of 2016 were both votes where the loser refused to accept the result and the arguments still rage on as division deepens.
Critics of Brexit say the people were duped by a vague campaign full of cheap slogans and empty of any real detail. Ms Sturgeon seems to think so, but in her case she seems to have examined the campaign and decided the same might work for her cause. But that is what her cause is really lacking – hard work.
As we found in the first vote on EU membership in 1975 and on devolution in 1997, referendums are only really of use when they are to confirm a position the country already largely holds. Where there is deep division, our recent experience shows they are more divisive than decisive.
If Ms Sturgeon was serious about holding a referendum, she would surely start by doing the heavy intellectual lifting of building a coherent case. But doing that, like governing effectively, is something that does not interest our First Minister.
In 1992, the SNP launched their general election campaign with the slogan: “Free by ’93”. The late Donald Dewar said there were two good things about the slogan – it rhymed and it was reusable every ten years. Thirty years on, his comment is still as relevant as it was then.
Murdo Fraser is a Scottish Conservative MSP for Mid-Scotland and Fife