The journalist John Rentoul is known for compiling an ever-expanding list of 'Questions To Which The Answer Is No'. In spite of his own hostility to the Scottish independence movement, he will now be expected to reluctantly add a new entry that is perhaps destined to become the all-time classic: "Was Nicola Sturgeon bluffing about a second independence referendum?"
The Westminster bubble had utterly convinced itself that Sturgeon didn't really want a referendum, and was only threatening one in a desperate attempt to wring concessions. So firm was this belief that it was simply assumed Theresa May could, if she wished, play games with Sturgeon by holding off from invoking Article 50 for a little longer, and thus automatically prevent any announcement being made at the forthcoming SNP spring conference. As it turns out, Sturgeon does genuinely want a referendum, and had a plan up her sleeve to pre-empt the Article 50 decision – thus leaving Theresa May's own choice of timing largely irrelevant.
It's deeply troubling that the same Westminster bubble that has just been proven so hopelessly wrong will still have the opportunity to 'interpret' the meaning of Sturgeon's statement for the benefit of Scottish viewers, listeners and readers. So perhaps now is a timely moment to compile a shortlist of other burning questions to which the correct answer is in fact the polar opposite of the Westminster bubble's answer.
Has Nicola Sturgeon been reluctantly forced into this decision by SNP "fanatics"? The Westminster bubble's answer is 'Yes', but the correct answer is 'No'. Sturgeon may have a reputation for being less impulsive than her predecessor, but that simply underscores the London media's mistake in doubting her seriousness when she declared a second independence referendum "highly likely" on the day after the Brexit vote. Those words would have been an enormous hostage to fortune if she hadn't meant them, and it should therefore always have been obvious that she did.
Is there anything the Scottish Government can do in the unlikely event that Theresa May refuses point blank to grant a Section 30 order? The Westminster bubble's answer is a flat 'No', and indeed that was the message from the BBC's Norman Smith a mere few minutes after Sturgeon had stopped speaking. The true answer is 'Yes', albeit within certain constraints and uncertainties.
Professor Robert Black, one of Scotland's foremost legal experts, has repeatedly made clear that he believes the Scottish Parliament already possesses the power to hold a consultative referendum, if the question is chosen with great care (ie. in that scenario it couldn't be the Scottish Government's preferred option of "Should Scotland be an independent country?"). The courts might end up making the final call, but at the very least there's enough uncertainty over the legal position to remove any justification for the stark claim that "Sturgeon cannot call a referendum without London's permission".
Ian Murray MP: Scotland would be a better place if Sturgeon stopped dividing and started governing
Even in the worst-case scenario, where a consultative referendum proves to be impossible, Sturgeon would have a fallback option which everyone knows is legally watertight. She could simply bring about an early Scottish Parliament election, and use it to seek an outright mandate for independence by making an explicit pledge to that effect in the SNP manifesto. (The Greens and other smaller pro-independence parties would likely follow suit.) The use of a parliamentary mandate to bring about constitutional change without a referendum is a long-standing part of the British tradition – it was, after all, the basis on which Edward Heath took Britain into the European Community in the first place.
Do opinion polls show that the people of Scotland want a second independence referendum? The Westminster bubble's answer is 'No', but the true answer is 'Yes' – as long as you look at polls that didn't address the issue in an absurdly misleading way. For instance, a recent Panelbase poll found a narrow majority in favour of a referendum in the relatively near future, either before or after Brexit. That is exactly the timescale Nicola Sturgeon outlined in her statement – she deliberately left open the possibility of a referendum taking place very soon after Britain's departure from the EU. The polls that supposedly found a majority against a referendum have generally asked about a much tighter and more unrealistic timescale than the one Ms Sturgeon is actually proposing.
Do opinion polls suggest that the result of the second independence referendum will be identical to the first? The Westminster bubble's answer is 'Yes', but the correct answer is an emphatic 'No'. Of the many independence polls that have been conducted since September 2014, just one has found support for independence below the 45% received at the first referendum. Only a tiny handful have failed to detect an increase in support. Most polling firms now weight their results by recalled referendum vote, so there can be very little doubt that the swing towards the Yes camp has been genuine.
It's also important to make a like-for-like comparison with the state of play at an equivalent point in the first IndyRef campaign, rather than fatuously pretending that public opinion is somehow set in stone and will not be affected by the lengthy debate to come. About eighteen months to two years before the September 2014 referendum, the Yes campaign were miles behind in virtually all polls, and their position in telephone polls seemed practically irretrievable. The direst telephone poll of all in the spring of 2013 put them behind by a 2-1 margin. Contrast that with last week's telephone poll from exactly the same firm, which actually put Yes slightly ahead on one measure.
Scotland's political landscape has changed beyond all recognition over the last few years, and if the second IndyRef campaign follows the same trajectory as the first, we'll actually be looking at an overwhelming majority in favour of independence. There's no guarantee that will happen, of course, but the UK government ought to be deeply concerned that polls are suggesting that the race is already level-pegging without Yes even having made substantial inroads among the crucial segment of the population that voted No in 2014, and then Remain in 2016.
If it turns out that many of those people have only stayed in the No column thus far because they've yet to engage seriously with the choice between the UK and the EU that will shortly confront them, it could be that the momentum towards a Yes vote will at some point become unstoppable.
Enough of the London media's most beloved questions, though. An army of Yes campaigners that has been itching to hit the streets for the last two-and-a-half years will now be looking forward to millions of individual conversations in which the Scottish people's own questions can be answered.
Few on the pro-independence side are ready to predict victory just yet – but there's immense excitement that the page has been turned on a narrow defeat of the past, and that a new story is about to be written on a blank sheet of paper, with no predetermined outcome.
James Kelly is author of the Scottish pro-independence blog, SCOT goes POP! Voted one of the UK's top political bloggers, you can hear more from James on Twitter: @JamesKelly
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