Indyref2 is deferred not abandoned

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Media captionMs Sturgeon said it is still "likely" there will be a second referendum during the lifetime of the current Holyrood Parliament

I have always felt the "scunner factor" to be particularly potent in contemporary politics. (For those who lack the Scots tongue of Burns, Scott or Welsh, a person who is scunnered is one who is less than gruntled.)

Actually, scrub the word contemporary. For example, Gladstone's budget speeches lasted more than four hours. That would try the patience of even the most zealous supporter.

And weary Roman citizens probably said to the persistent senator Cato: "Look, this Carthage obsession of yours. For Jupiter's sake, let it go, man!"

Either way, Nicola Sturgeon has again detected the scunner factor at play. Voters in Scotland have thrilled to seven electoral tests in three years.

They are already anxious over the uncertainty attendant upon Brexit. Are they ready for yet more eager talk from the SNP and the Scottish Government about the prospect of indyref2?

Nicola Sturgeon has concluded that they are not. So she has "reset" her thinking on the subject and has postponed immediate preparations for such a plebiscite.

Dormant, not abandoned

Instead, she intends to focus upon securing the best possible deal from Brexit for Scotland. She believes, further, that such a mission is made more feasible by a UK Government weakened by the absence of a single party majority.

So what has changed, in practice, as opposed to rhetorically?

  • Firstly, Ms Sturgeon will not proceed now with legislation at Holyrood to prepare for a prospective referendum. The Bill will lie dormant. Not abandoned, but resting.
  • Secondly, that means there is now no urgency about her demand for Westminster to transfer the necessary power to hold such a referendum, under Section 30 of the Scotland Act.

Not, you understand, that the UK Government and the Conservative Party regarded the demand as urgent in the first place. The Scottish Secretary David Mundell has said not now, almost certainly not within the lifetime of the present Holyrood Parliament.

Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader, has come within a whisker of saying "not ever" - although, to be clear, she retains the option of indyref2 returning at some point.

So, one, the indyref2 Bill is shelved. Two, the Section 30 request is also on ice. But, three, the First Minister intends to return to the topic once Brexit negotiations conclude which she anticipates should be in Autumn 2018.

Image caption Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson called for indyref2 to be taken off the table altogether

Certainly not a surrender, then. Not a retreat. Perhaps a tactical withdrawal, recognising that the talk of indyref2 damaged the SNP during the UK election in which the party lost 21 seats - while still outpolling all their opponents in Scotland.

To be clear, further, Ms Sturgeon believes it is still in prospect that there will be an independence referendum before the next Holyrood elections in May 2021.

I asked her about this. She began her reply by using the word "likely" in re indyref2. Somewhat cheekily, I intervened to offer the alternative phrase "highly likely" - the verdict she had herself used on the morning after the Brexit vote.

Rightly ignoring my insolence, Ms Sturgeon continued to explain that it would still be feasible to restart the process after Brexit talks concluded - and to hold such a poll before that next Holyrood contest.

Which prompts a range of questions. One, would there be time? The Scottish Government believes that the ground work - now shelved - is there.

What did Nicola Sturgeon say in March?

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Media captionNicola Sturgeon says a second independence referendum will be called between autumn 2018 and spring 2019

The Holyrood Bill is ready, albeit now in abeyance. The issues arising from a Section 30 transfer were well ventilated last time out, before the 2014 poll.

Two, will Nicola Sturgeon go for it? She is resolutely not saying, as a matter of policy. She believes folk are, as outlined earlier, fed up with endless talk of the referendum process. So no more on that for now.

Instead, she will re-energise the campaign on the broader concept of independence itself, rather than the process. Linking that, at all times, to the challenge she sees posed by Brexit.

Three, would the UK Government tolerate indyref2 on that amended timetable? There are very few signs that they would - although, of course, Brexit could change matters.

Sanctioned a postponement

At Holyrood, opposition leaders who support the Union accused Ms Sturgeon of being in denial. They said there should be no indyref2 during the present Holyrood Parliament.

And David Mundell, the Scottish Secretary, amplified that point on behalf of the UK Government who, remember, would have to sanction indyref2 on the basis that Holyrood does not presently have the power.

He says the FM has merely sanctioned a postponement, rather than taking the issue off the table which, he asserts, is what the people want. Little sign there of bending to the FM's possible future will.

An issue deferred, then. But an issue which remains the fundamental fault line in Scottish politics.

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