IT'S game on for indyref2. Nicola Sturgeon has promised a referendum bill and a precise timetable for independence. Only, er, not in last week's programme for government, but way back in March 2017 after Theresa May told her that, “now is not the time”.

After that rebuff, Nicola Sturgeon said she would come back with her plans in the autumn of 2018, and she did – sort of. But only to say that, well, now is still not the time. The Brexit culture war was in full flow, and the First Minister decided that fighting for a second referendum on EU membership should take precedence over a second referendum on Scottish independence.

Her SNP troops were somewhat deflated since most of them thought securing Indyref2 was rather more important than overturning the result of the EU referendum. But they mostly accepted it, not least because of what had happened after the Catalan independence referendum – the one that did take place in the autumn of 2017.

That was the kind of unauthorised or “wildcat” plebiscite that some militant nationalists had been calling for. But the result was chaos. The Spanish state ruled the referendum unconstitutional, imposed direct rule and dissolved parliament. The Guardia Civil bashed heads in Barcelona (with little condemnation, significantly, from the European Union) and the organisers were imprisoned. The Catalan President, Carles Puigdemont, and senior ministers, went into political exile where they remain to this day.

This didn't seem like a very promising route to independence. So, Nicola Sturgeon made the first of her many declarations that any referendum had to be legal, constitutional and “beyond challenge” in the courts. The First Minister is of course a lawyer, so you would expect her to observe the law – even UK law.

Many of her supporters believe that Scotland has a “right to self-determination” under international law, and insist that a mandate from Holyrood, after a free and fair election, should be legally watertight. But that is not going to cut any ice with the UK Supreme Court, which would adjudicate on the legality of any referendum called by the Scottish parliament.

SNP supporters may have cheered the “spider lady”, Lady Hale as she ruled against Boris Johnson's proroguing parliament. But only two years previously her court had ruled in the Miller case that the Westminster parliament is sovereign in all circumstances, and can legislate at will without Holyrood's consent. There is no prospect of a legal referendum unless a Section 30 Order is passed in Westminster handing this responsibility to the Scottish parliament.

The idea that the Supreme Court might over-rule the UK government and parliament on this is fanciful. Boris Johnson has said that he will not concede a repeat referendum, insisting that the 2014 referendum was a “once in a generation event”. Some Tory MPs may think this problematic, but there is little chance, anyway, that the House of Commons would permit a Scottish independence referendum even if it was given a free vote.

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Jeremy Corbyn may have said he would not "stand in the way” of a referendum if Holyrood voted for one, but that is not the position of his successor, Sir Keir Starmer. The Labour leader said in June that “breaking up Britain is the wrong thing to do when the country faces an economic crisis”, and said he intended to come up with plans for “radical federalism” instead.

This makes the prospect of an early referendum practically zero, even with an SNP majority in May. Perhaps this is the reason why the First Minister's announcement last Tuesday generated so little fuss: no one really believes she's serious. They've been through it all before. Even her promise of a referendum bill sounds like a rehash of the referendum “framework” bill put through the parliament last year.

The policy of a second independence referendum is beginning to look a bit like the old Clause 4 which committed Labour to nationalising the means of production. It was there but no one took it seriously. It's not even clear that Nicola Sturgeon wants a referendum any time soon. She has insisted that her “primary focus” is not a referendum but coronavirus

This leaves a paradox: support for independence has never been higher yet, the prospect of realising it is no nearer. Recent polls have put Yes consistently above 50% rising to 55% in last month's Panelbase poll. The SNP's popularity has also never been higher in its 13 years in office – a remarkable achievement for a governing party.

Mind you, there isn't much challenge from the opposition. The Scottish Tories were devastated by the loss of Ruth Davidson and then half their MPs in the December general election. Her replacement, Jackson Carlaw, was outed in a palace coup. Labour is if anything in worse condition. There is open revolt against the lacklustre leadership of Richard Leonard, but they can't even mount a coup and don't have a palace.

So what is Nicola Sturgeon likely to do with her refreshed mandate in May? She says that an independence referendum will be a top line in her Holyrood manifesto. But what then? Boris Johnson knows he can call her bluff. He will simply say that “now is not the time”. Sir Keir Starmer will back him up, as will Ed Davey the new leader of the Liberal Democrats.

It will be 2017 all over again. Then it was Brexit that was taking the wind out of the independence sails, now it is the pandemic, and after that it will be the economy. Even if a vaccine is found, there will be other reasons for delay. Britain will be leaving the EU next year and there will be much chaos and uncertainty. The Scottish Government will be preoccupied with the “power grab” as the UK Government dictates the rules for the new UK internal market.

The SNP will have to face up to the radically changed circumstances post-Brexit and the prospect of a hard border with England. The former Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill MP has condemned his party leadership for not addressing these questions and “parroting opinion polls” instead of doing the organisational ground-work for independence.

Is there ever going to be an ideal time for a risk-free indyref2? Pandemics will be an winter-time threat for many years. We live in times of geo-political instability, with racial and national tensions rising across the world. Climate change may soon overwhelm the domestic political agenda.

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Brexit brought chaos, and independence – whatever its merits – will also be disruptive and contentious. Going it alone will always look a bit like a leap in the dark. If you are a “small c” conservative leader like Nicola Sturgeon, why would you take the risk? The SNP is doing very well without a referendum.

In the absence of a radical populist like Alex Salmond, a history-maker, it is hard to see this First Minister ever taking the risk of forcing a referendum. Salmond made the political weather, secured the first “impossible” Holyrood landslide in 2011 and then delivered the Edinburgh Agreement. We may never see the like again. A second independence referendum is beginning to appear a bit of a unicorn: a phenomenon much talked about but never seen.

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