Over the weekend, we've had another airing of argument over when, or if, there should be a second referendum on Scottish independence. Alex Salmond believes it is inevitable, a view shared by many if not most Scots (including those opposed). Yesterday, David Cameron popped up to rule it out. But in both cases it's largely irrelevant - it's not happening right now, so I'm curious exactly what story the media are trying to distract us from.
My view on this is actually that both AS and DC are right and both are wrong. That is, I'm reasonably sure that there will fairly soon be a referendum, but I'm equally sure that that referendum won't result in Scottish independence regardless of the result.
Here's how I see this playing out: Given the current state of the Labour party, I really can't see them winning any election in the foreseeable future (in Scotland or the UK as a whole). That means we'll have an SNP government in Scotland (and Tory in the UK) for quite some time to come. At some point, Nicola Sturgeon (or one of her successors) will decide the time has come, she'll put the commitment to a second referendum into the SNP manifesto, and they'll win (probably). So far, so good.
At this point, the Scottish government will ask the UK government for permission to hold the referendum, and the UK government will say "NO".
Now, this is the point where people assume things will get interesting - there will be a constitutional crisis, there will probably be a big legal challenge, and it will be determined whether under Scots law it really is the people who are sovereign or not.
Personally, I don't think it will come to that. Rather, I expect there to be a whole lot of bluster, followed by Westminster simply saying that Holyrood can indeed hold a consultative referendum that that they will have nothing to do with it. In particular, there will be no official No campaign, and they will simply refuse to consider the result binding. (At which point, taking their lead from Westminster, the mainstream media will proceed to ignore the referendum almost entirely.)
The referendum will therefore proceed, but it will lose an awful lot of significance. And, as a consequence, Yes will win a thumping majority... but on a very small turnout (say 70% for Yes, but 30% turnout).
At which point... nothing happens. That turnout will be such as to render the result meaningless - it won't be possible to call it the settled will of the people in any sense. By rights, the next stage would be to have a proper, binding, referendum, but of course Westminster won't agree to that (for the same reason they ignored this one), and Holyrood won't be in a position to force the issue. "What are you going to do about it?" will be the key question, and as far as I can see the answer will be "nothing". (This, incidentally, seems to be exactly how things have played out in Catalunya in the last few months.)
There is one exception to this, which is if the result and the turnout come together such that Yes somehow achieve an absolute majority of the electorate (not just those who actually vote). But that's a sufficiently unlikely outcome that I feel safe not addressing it further.
The issue of Scottish independence remains a live one in Scottish politics, and probably will for the foreseeable future. But there's a difference between it being an issue and it actually happening, and I just can't see the latter. We're just too useful as a stick for the Tories to use to beat Labour with for them to consider letting us go.