Leader: Camps must know where they stand

Nicola Sturgeon took her opponents by surprise last week when she unveiled her plans for an independence referendum – even though her speech has changed very little.

Before the First Minister addressed MSPs there was scant prospect of a poll by the end of next year. It was also likely her party’s next general election campaign would focus on the constitution rather than the SNP’s record in government. Those things remain the case today.

The Supreme Court is likely to reject Ms Sturgeon’s proposals for a referendum in October 2023, or refuse to even consider them because they have not been put before the Scottish Parliament.In the absence of a favourable ruling, Ms Sturgeon says she will make the next general election a “de facto referendum”.Of course this appeals to her base, but a general election is not a referendum no matter how much Ms Sturgeon may wish it to be so.

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But despite her options being so limited, the First Minister has succeeded in raising the stakes considerably by gambling her own future and the future of the independence movement on the outcome of the general election.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon wants the next general election to be a "de facto" vote on Scottish independence if Supreme Court judges do not look favourably on her plans to hold a referendum in October 2023.

Patrick Harvie, co-leader of the SNP’s partners in government the Scottish Greens, said yesterday that his party backs the “de facto referendum” plan. If Green votes are to count towards the tally, will ballots cast for Alex Salmond’s Alba Party also count? In which case, could we see Ms Sturgeon campaigning once again alongside her former friend and mentor?

Ms Sturgeon’s opponents will soon be forced to confront the fact that the argument it is too soon since the last referendum for another to take place will not hold indefinitely, particularly if a majority of pro-independence MSPs are elected at the next Holyrood election. There were just 15 years between Quebec’s first and second independence referendums – almost a generation, in fact.

What does seem certain is that both sides have cause to regret that the terms for another vote were not set out in the wake of the 2014 poll.

Such terms must be agreed if there is another referendum in order to avoid a prolonged period of paralysis like that which has held Scotland in its grip since Ms Sturgeon took up residence in Bute House.