IN a recent BBC interview, Ms Sturgeon said she would be taking the “necessary steps” for a referendum in 2023. She has now announced at the SNP conference that she will “initiate” the process some time next year, for a referendum some time in 2023 (and that the PM should “let” the people decide). This brings her up against a deadline she might not be able to keep, and possibly a brick wall of her own making. How come?

The process of getting the necessary referendum act through Holyrood will take 10 months (in the view of political scientist Alistair Clark, as reported by the Centre on Constitutional Change in February), so even if commenced right at the start of 2022 it would not be finished until 2023 is virtually upon us.

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London might then refer it to the Supreme Court, adding months to the timescale and casting the whole project into doubt. The only legal question would be whether the Holyrood act “relates” to “the union of the kingdoms” (in the words of the Scotland Act). If it does, no referendum.

Now we don’t know whether London would grant consent for a referendum, or whether it would refer any Holyrood act to court, and we don’t know what the outcome of such referral would be. We must hope it would be favourable, but it is quite possible that Holyrood will simply not be able to hold a referendum.

That eventuality would be a grave embarrassment for the SNP, because they would have brought progress towards independence to a dead-end, at least in their own view. Their position is that there is no way to independence except by referendum, meaning that if it was blocked, Scotland would remain permanently manacled to the Union. The party of independence would be not our liberators, but our jailers. There could be no greater betrayal of the cause.

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But there is of course a way out, namely to use the next Westminster election as the plebiscite. This was SNP policy for decades, and was always endorsed by London.

It is perfectly legitimate and constitutional, and can be made completely democratic by including in the manifesto a requirement for a majority of votes. The practicalities are simpler than for a referendum anyway.

The current SNP taboo on the electoral route is pure heresy, and just plumb crazy. A referendum, or nothing! That may be the mad cry which stifles independence for Scotland.

It may also end the SNP’s overwhelming predominance in Scottish politics. There is likely to be a Westminster election in 2023. It would be deeply ignominious for the SNP go into it without having managed to set up a referendum, and without using the election as the plebiscite.

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Following the FM’s conference speech, we must wonder if her slack timetable might delay the outcome until after that election, so that the people of Scotland will not even know whether they are going to get a referendum until they have already cast their Westminster votes. If it then transpired that a referendum was not going to take place, the SNP would escape voter retribution for several more years. But surely our FM would never contemplate such perfidy.

Let Ms Sturgeon take us full steam ahead to a referendum in 2023 – if she can. But in case she can’t, let her now re-open the entirely respectable electoral route as an alternative, and rescue the cause rather than betray it.

Ian Roberts