Sturgeon has blown her big chance to scene-set for a referendum - Brian Wilson

We have been forewarned to stand by for a “scene-setter” from Nicola Sturgeon next week on the case for independence. A devoted proportion of the nation waits expectantly, while most couldn’t care less.

This is to be the first in “a series of papers” prepared by civil servants under direction from Ms Sturgeon and Angus Robertson, now better known as the first minister in history to screw up a census which is, in itself, not a great advert for future confidence.

The problem is that we have already lived through eight years of Ms Sturgeon’s “scene-setter”. She had a unique chance to build support for her cause, having inherited the virtual guarantee of prolonged domination at Holyrood. The scene was hers to set. Now it is too late.

Eight years ago, Ms Sturgeon had a choice. She could “set the scene for independence” by running a competent, caring, inclusive administration while at the same time addressing the hard questions which had proved fatal to her cause during the 2014 campaign.

In doing so, she could have presided over real improvements to many areas of Scottish life, created a feel-good factor and then taken her chances on whether the success of her devolved administration would leave the audience crying for more.

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Indeed, in the first flush of success, she appeared to set herself on that course, sending out the message that there would only be a case for another referendum when support for independence appeared to run consistently at around 60 per cent - a long, long forgotten statement of reasonable intent.

It took little time for that position to be abandoned and for Ms Sturgeon and her camp-followers to revert to the more natural posture of a divisive nationalism; not to persuade by inspiration but to divide by tribalism. That is the sterile scene that Ms Sturgeon has since worked relentlessly to set.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon during First Minister's Questions at the Scottish Parliament on Thursday . PIC: Jane Barlow/PA Wire

In these early days, she dipped her toe in the waters of reality and retreated at a rate of knots. Andrew Wilson’s Growth Commission report contained so many unwelcome economic truths that it was quickly consigned to the bonfire of history, along with Alex Salmond. The scene it set was not the one

Ms Sturgeon had in mind.

Since then, there has been the diversion of Brexit which most Scots very sensibly voted against. On the face it, this should have been a huge plus for separation. In practice, that didn’t happen because almost everyone who wasn’t in that camp already decided, on balance, that Brexit confirmed the view that creating borders where none exist is a seriously bad idea. And nobody believed the bit about being welcomed back into the EU with open arms.

As for a competent, caring administration, the record speaks louder than an army of spin doctors’ words. The most generous appraisal of how the devolved powers have been used is “mediocre” and most unlikely to persuade a majority that the road to betterment lies in dividing our small island into separate states.

Indeed, history might judge Ms Sturgeon’s most remarkable achievement to be the perverse one of making so little progress in that direction, despite the outstandingly auspicious circumstance of having Boris Johnson as her nemesis in London. And that scene won’t be set for ever.

The “scene setter” is ostensibly intended to kick off a process leading to another referendum which everyone knows is not going to happen. Fewer than 30 per cent of Scots want one according to the promised timescale and even fewer rank it as a priority at any time at all.

And that pretty much describes the scene Ms Sturgeon has set over the course of eight years. She has hung onto most of those who voted for independence which is enough to keep her in a job but there is no great enthusiasm beyond a hard core and certainly no great interest in spending the next year arguing about the right to hold a referendum.

People have bigger things to worry about. And that’s before they even ask what currency they would be paying their bills in.

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