Leader comment: Unofficial referendum an expensive waste of time

Much of the constitutional posturing this week has, of course, consisted of bluff and brinkmanship, as the leaders of the UK and Scottish Governments try to hold their nerve while testing that of their counterpart.

Nicola Sturgeon should tell the SNP conference today that there will be no unofficial referendum.

Any phoney war over this issue should be expected, sadly. This is politics in action, and it is a game played by our elected members week in, week out. It’s not exclusive to the arguments over the pros and cons of Scottish independence.

Since Prime Minister Theresa May stated that a second independence referendum would not be granted before Brexit negotiations have been settled, there has been much speculation about how the SNP will respond. In a climate characterised by stakes being constantly raised, many have waited to see which way First Minister Nicola Sturgeon would turn, having been thwarted as she played her main card on Monday.

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Very quickly, attention focused on the possibility of an unofficial referendum being held, to spite the UK government. There were calls yesterday for the SNP to drop that threat, although it should be pointed out that no-one in a position of influence at the Scottish Government has actually said that an unofficial referendum is being considered.

Nevertheless, the SNP has been happy to allow this prospect to be floated, presumably to cause Mrs May discomfort, with senior figures yesterday declining the opportunity to rule out an unofficial referendum.

Political opponents will see this attitude as childish: “Not going to let me? I’ll do it anyway.” It would be kinder to describe it as thrawn, but either way, the veiled threat does not do Ms Sturgeon’s party any good.

An unofficial referendum is no more than a defiant gesture, producing a meaningless result and wasting an enormous amount of energy in the process. Those who oppose independence would not participate, and the result would be hopelessly distorted.

It would also be a colossal waste of money. Elections of any kind do not come cheap, and a nationwide plebiscite would anger Unionists as well as a significant proportion of independence supporters who would see it as no more than a very expensive stunt.

The SNP could announce today that they have no such intention, and blame the media for stirring up uncertainty over nothing more than speculation. However, the opportunity to do just that was passed up yesterday, and that can only have been a conscious decision.

We should also acknowledge that what Ms Sturgeon did go on the record with yesterday was her desire to have talks with Mrs May over the date of a referendum, stating that she hoped they could work through their disagreement. And this is where the debate should be. Letting the possibility of an unofficial referendum hang in the air undermines any attempt to address this matter with a responsible approach. An unofficial vote is an unwanted distraction, and it should be ruled out immediately if there is to be any hope of mature debate over a matter that means so much to Scotland.