Professor Jim Gallagher: Here we go again

The shadow of Alex Salmond looms over Nicola Sturgeon today. He, or at least the die hard supporters of independence whom he claims to represent are the targets of her so-called starting gun for an independence referendum. The people of Scotland, on the other hand, are distinctly negative about a referendum anytime soon. Sturgeon knows there will not be a referendum on her timetable, hence all the obfuscation and fancy footwork about the legal problems. The bottom line is that Holyrood hasn’t the power, and won’t get it. She was coy about what she would do then, but actually she only has one choice. She will introduce a bill before the summer holidays to have a referendum, and have it rejected by the Supreme Court at the most politically convenient time for her. She can then blame an undemocratic Boris who, we have now discovered, is almost the only argument for independence she had to make.

For sure she needs some better arguments, and Boris is an easy target. But the arguments for and against independence have changed since 2014. The world is a much tougher place. Inflation at 10% leaves families deeply worried about how they are going to pay the bills for fuel or food. Under SNP management the Scottish economy has performed even more poorly than the UK since she has been in government. We can see the results in the shortfall of hundreds of millions of pounds of tax revenue, after the SNP's botched changes to income tax before the last election. Quite soon, Nicola will be going cap in hand to Boris to borrow some money to get over the problem. Much worse, war in the Ukraine is not only destroying much of that poor country but disrupting energy and food supplies worldwide, and the effects could get worse still. Brexit gives Nicola a great emotional argument about independence, but has removed the safety net of the European single market which made economic separation less threatening. Independence suddenly got a lot harder.

Like it or not, these are the problems the case for independence has to answer. On the strength of today's publication, it's got a very long way to go. Nicola Sturgeon's constant refrain was simply that Britain is broken under Boris. Even if you agree with that, you still have to persuade yourself that breaking up Britain is the answer to Boris. You might think there was a simpler one. The Scottish Government paper which was the subject of this latest announcement is one of the poorest in an uninspiring catalogue. It consisted largely of graphs showing that a particular selection of countries were more successful economically, or more equal, than Britain. Every so often, countries fall in and out of the list of those whom the SNP think it worth comparing us to. For some reason, New Zealand, which was the answer to everything a couple of years ago, is now not a useful comparator at all. So selected other countries are richer, fairer, and happier than Britain. If Scotland were independent, it is claimed, it could be like them. Well perhaps it could, if there was a plan to make it so, though you would have to choose which country to become. New Zealand really isn't the same as Denmark, and quite different from Belgium too. And then you'd have to figure out what social and economic changes would bring about that outcome.

Not a word about any of that in Sturgeon's paper, and she simply refused to answer any questions about the hard stuff - currency, public spending, borders or even whether a referendum was legal or not. I’m not telling you today, you will have to wait for later papers, she answered. This is nothing but a tactic. Spread out the answers and problems, so that no one will see how they don't hang together. But the questions won’t go away, and even the nationalist fringes will probably revolt at this. It's not the real referendum they want, and if her answers are at all realistic they may simply reject them.

There is an alternative. Referendums divide, not unite. By their very nature they split the country into opposing camps. Last time round, the Yes side found the process liberating, No supporters felt fearful and silenced. The resultant fissure has dominated our politics for a decade, but is more apparent than real.

Most people in Scotland aren't partisans for one side or the other. They share common worries and aspirations, a decent standard of living, care for the elderly and sick, opportunities for the young and so on. They’re less interested in independence or union, than in what government can deliver for them.

Nicola Sturgeon could choose to act as Scotland’s First Minister, and not just a leader of the SNP. She could choose to see whether there is a consensus for change that most people in Scotland might agree with or at least accept. After all, 75% of the population – including many independence supporters - would prefer a better Scotland in a reformed relationship in a better Britain to separation. But she is a prisoner of ideology, and in hock to her party. Someone else will have to do it.

Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon prior to the 2014 independence referendum