Today’s Supreme Court ruling on the Scottish Government’s bid to hold its own referendum on independence was unanimous and decisive: as a reserved issue, the constitution and the Union is the preserve of Westminster.
Although in the Alice-in-Wonderland world of the Miller II judgment one can there may be no volume of precedent and historic understanding sufficient to constitute a certainty, there was nonetheless little doubt about where the authority to hold a binding referendum lay.
Nicola Sturgeon tried to get around this by suggesting that the referendum proposed by the Scottish Government would only be advisory – although it is a certainty that had the ruling gone the other way, her supporters would have insisted that any resulting plebiscite carried the exact same moral weight as the one of 2014.
Had the Supreme Court decided in favour of the SNP, it would likely have opened a very ugly political chapter indeed. The Scottish Government would have had the green light to proceed with a referendum held entirely on its terms: its own question, its own timetable, and its own franchise.
The Government could have legislated to try and prevent this; alternatively, unionists could simply have boycotted the poll. It would probably not have constituted the sort of internationally-legitimate means by which any eventually successful bid for Scottish independence would need to be carried out.
But really, that wouldn’t have mattered. The result would have suited the SNP’s immediate political needs perfectly. At once, the dreary litany of their domestic failings (tallied almost weekly in our Red, White, and Blue column) would have been swept from the front pages; the growing divisions in the separatist movement would have been forgotten in the heat of renewed battle.
And if the end result had not actually been independence – and it probably would not, unless Westminster plumbed new depths of pusillanimity – the Nats would have had their great betrayal, a story to comfort and energise their base for a generation.
But it was not to be, and now Sturgeon is in a truly invidious position.
Officially, her backup plan is to use the next general election as a proxy vote on independence. The logic runs that if the SNP vote (or perhaps the combined vote of the separatist parties) tops 50 per cent, that will be a mandate for independence.
Many nationalists are deeply uneasy about this, and rightly so. Unlike the Scottish Tories, back in the distant past, the Nationalists have never actually won a majority of the popular vote in any Scottish election; indeed, they very often take pains to play down the question of separation during campaigns so as not to spook floating voters.
Even if they somehow do at the next election, it is simply not any sort of constitutional mandate for independence. There is no reason for any British Government to open negotiations. Nor would it be likely to garner substantial support on the world stage.
Any such effort would basically amount to a unilateral declaration of independence. And whilst Sturgeon might be many things, she is by inclination no Ian Smith.
Her problem is simply that she is running out of time. When she first succeeded Alex Salmond after the 2014 referendum, there must have seemed plenty to be hopeful about. She was the adored leader of a separatist movement which was energised as never before.
In 2015, her party transformed the Scottish electoral map and almost wiped out the pro-UK parties at Westminster; in 2016, England and Wales delivered a vote for Brexit which allowed her to re-open the question of independence, this time with the instinctive sympathy of many London progressives.
And yet, and yet. The polls have stubbornly refused to budge. The consistent majority for independence she once held as a prerequisite for a successful bid for independence has not materialised. A latticework of cracks has started to appear in the separatist movement. And the failures of her ministers at actually governing Scotland just continue piling up.
Now she’s the longest-serving first minister ever. She remains a front-rank politician of rare calibre, with no obvious successor amongst her own ranks or rival on the opposition benches. But the way to independence is shut.
Hence, perhaps, this absurd and completely out-of-character gamble with the proxy vote. It seems more likely than not to inflict a needless blow to the separatist cause; even if successful on its own terms, it would probably not deliver independence.
But it would give Sturgeon a note on which to bow out. Salmond took his shot, this was hers. Good luck to the movement, but there is more to life than and endless death-march through NHS crises and ferry fiascos, thank you very much.
If this creates a challenge for the Scottish Government, it ought to present an opening for the British one. With the threat of a referendum taken firmly off the table, there is now the space for ministers to press ahead with efforts to expand the footprint of the British state and better hold the devolved administrations to account for their performance.
Without a grand battle over independence, the SNP’s woeful record on transport, health, education and more are ripe for attack.
Unfortunately, such efforts seem unlikely to materialise. There is still no agreement at the top of government about the best way to take on the separatist threat, or wield the powers secured via the UK Internal Market Act. The Union Unit has not been reconstituted, and Michael Gove, who is nominally in charge of Union strategy, is also responsible for levelling up and housing, two massive jobs in their own right.
So it seems likely that, once again, the Conservatives will let this opportunity pass them by – and eventually pass the torch to Labour, so Gordon Brown can use it to set fire to those parts of the constitution New Labour didn’t get around to before 2010.