I wrote back at the turn of the year about this. There is no route to a legal and binding referendum without a s.30. And, eh, that's it. There has been a bit of newspaper speculation about there being an "advisory" referendum but this has the capacity to be the most spectacular own goal for the nats. Even if they negotiated the legal obstacles, no small issue in itself, what would its purpose be? If the nats won by a landslide on a derisory turnout, how would that advance their cause one iota? And if they only just scraped home or, worse still, suffered a defeat at the hands of a pissed of electorate? The problem is that in a legally binding referendum in 2014, 2,100,000 Scots voted to remain in the UK. Any victory that didn't deliver a similar figure now otherwise minded for some other proposition would simply be ignored by the UK Government and, as I repeat, there would be nothing the SNP could do about it.
But there is now another factor and that is the position of the leader of the SNP herself. In a little noticed development the weekend before last Nicola herself said that her immediate priorities were the pandemic and then dealing with its economic aftermath. This seems fair enough but nobody thinks the economic aftermath is going to be over any time soon. Let's take the very most optimistic of scenarios. There is a vaccine in the Autumn; mass production by the Winter; actual mass vaccination by the Spring and a return to something approaching medical normality by next Summer. Will the economic aftermath disappear as quickly? If only.
How we work, where we work and, in many cases, who we work for is going to be changed forever by the pandemic and, for a lot of people, they are not going to be working at all for a good period of time.
Now, let us consider the most optimistic political scenario for the SNP. They manage to win a landslide in an election which is still able to take place in May 2021. They are back for five years. The Tories have a Damascene conversion to allowing a fresh vote. Nonetheless, we are in the midst of a world recession. Why attempt a vote any time soon when you have five years at your disposal? Seizing the moment would only lead to the counter question: "Why do you need to seize this particular moment? If history is truly on your side what's the harm in waiting a bit? I mean, I might not be opposed to a wee row in a lifeboat but in the midst of this Force 9 gale, might we not be better on the ocean liner for the moment?"
So you see, even if everything goes the nats way (a very big if) there would still not be a referendum before 2023 at the earliest. Given the technical issues about agreeing the actual terms of this exceptionally improbable s.30 and the fact of a UK General Election in (probably) May 2024, probably not until the Autumn of 2024. And that's on the SNP's own most optimistic timetable!
So why is all this current froth going on? Why all the reporting as if a second vote was imminent and (panic!panic!) the union might be equally imminently dissolved. Well, I regret to say, that is because such a narrative is in the self interest of political journalists and commentators.
Like all people I am opposed to murder. Well, obviously not all people, some murderers aren't. But, I confess, when there is a local murder there is always a little frisson of hope that I might get the case. Murders are out of the common. More interesting and challenging than the day to day round. And there is usually a pretty decent cheque from the Legal Aid Board at the end of them.
Much of what goes on in Scottish politics is grindingly boring. There is good reason so many able talents have left Holyrood voluntarily. Duncan Hamilton and Jim Mather; Ruth Davidson and Adam Tomkins; Wendy Alexander and Susan Deacon; Nicol Stephen and Tavish Scott. And that's just the headliners. And if it is boring to participate in, it is even more boring to report.
But referendums are exciting. There are marches and rallies and inflamatory speeches. There is waiting by the phone for the latest opinion poll. There are balloons (not just of the human kind) and stickers and flags. Lots of flags. There are surprise interventions by celebrities or outside actors and denunciations of surprise interventions by celebrities and outside actors.. There is a real prize for the winners and a real downside for the losers (or at least that's meant to be the case). And, in our own heads at least, the eyes of the world are briefly on Old Scotia.
So who wouldn't prefer reporting this to reporting on Stage Two of The Heat Networks (Scotland) Bill 2020? Indeed who wouldn't prefer speculating (no matter how ill foundedly) that such an event was imminent, rather than reporting on The Heat Networks (Scotland) Bill? I have no doubt a worthy, piece of proposed legislation. Despite the fact that we can be certain we will have a heat network, indeed looking at the Bill's title potentially more than one, before we are ever going to have a referendum.
But there is also something else. Journalism, as a trade,is under severe pressure from the internet age. Barely a day goes by without a local or specialist publication closing. Equally a day without announcements of redundancies in the national press. Or individual announcements on twitter, that some respected journalist or another is joining a PLC or trade body as public relations officer. Or has decided to take "time off" to write a book. And, like so much else, this trend has been turbo charged by the pandemic. And it isn't just happening in print media, it is happening in television and radio as well.
But Scottish journalists and commentators think they hold an ace in their hand, particularly those working for UK publications or organisations. "You can't downsize in Scotland! There is about to be a second referendum! Here, it says so in [a rival publication]."
And, if you wanted to keep your job? "Hi boss, here's my weekly column. It's about the Heat Networks (Scotland) Bill............Only joking! It's about how there is about to be a second independence referendum."