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Scottish independence referendum: How soon is 'very soon'?

Nicola Sturgeon and Patrick Harvie at Bute House

Scottish independence referendum: How soon is 'very soon'?

There's an old showbiz adage: "Always leave 'em wanting more."

The quote is — rightly or wrongly — attributed to showman PT Barnum, and if Scottish politics is anything, it's a bit of a circus. And the launch of the Scottish Government's fresh independence push certainly lived up to that. More? Journalists were clamouring for more — more explanation, more detail, more hard facts about how First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and her power-sharing colleague, Patrick Harvie, intend to pull off indyref2 in the face of a cost-of-living crisis and a PM unlikely to waver on his opposition to a fresh constitutional contest.

Behind the podium at Bute House, Sturgeon said she was prepared to "forge a way forward, if necessary, without a Section 30 order" from Downing Street to clear legal obstacles to bring forth the ballot.

Such an order was granted by David Cameron's government to allow the 2014 referendum, but this No 10 is adamant that "now is not the time to be taking about another referendum".

No matter — there's another way, the press conference heard. It just didn't hear what that was.

 "This is a UK Government that has no respect for democracy," Sturgeon said, recounting the SNP's repeated electoral successes and long-standing promise to the public to put the constitution to the test again. "My duty, as the democratically elected First Minister, is to the people of Scotland; it is not to Boris Johnson or any Tory prime minister."

"I don't know whether you'll be watching or not," she said, looking down the TV camera in a direct appeal to Johnson, "but I stand ready to negotiate a Section 30 order, if you decide that you are now a democrat — I have to say the evidence of that up to now is not promising — but I'll set out what we do in those circumstances if you continue to deny democracy very soon."

The competence of the Scottish Parliament to legislate on this area without the consent of the UK Government "is contested", Sturgeon said. "That therefore is the situation we must navigate to give people the choice of independence.

"That work is well under way and, while I do not intend to go further into the detail today, I can say that I do plan to give a significant update to parliament very soon indeed".

Very soon? Recess, which runs through August, starts on June 30, so would it be before then? "Fairly soon," Sturgeon said. "I'm not sure I would describe September as very soon, so you can draw your own conclusions from that."

The press had been called to discuss the first in a new series of “scene-setting” papers published by the Scottish Government to build its case for independence.

Titled Independence in the Modern World. Wealthier, Happier, Fairer: Why Not Scotland? the 70-plus page document was handed out minutes before the politicians emerged.

Packed with pages of dense text, bald greyscale charts and jagged graphs showing the relative economic performances of 10 other European states, there's none of Barnum's showbiz sparkle here, and some felt they'd seen this show before. 

Sturgeon and Harvie insisted this was all-new and updated, with fresh data on Ukraine and the cost-of-living crisis to prove it, and they were optimistic that their paper will find its audience, particularly amongst new arrivals to Scotland and the young people who, too young to mark their 'x' in 2014, are now of voting age. 

Are they sure? After so many elections and referenda, couldn't some Scots just be sick of voting? "Politician fatigue might be more of an issue than voter fatigue," Sturgeon told Holyrood. "We will have massive interest, enthusiasm and voter turnout."

During the session, she also, unprompted, told the session that an independent Scotland would not be a "one-party state", citing the Scottish Greens as an example of potential post-Union plurality. Standing by her side, mostly quietly, for 90 minutes, Harvie agreed.

But would the SNP leader share a platform just as happily with other Yes backers? Say, for instance, Alba head Alex Salmond, the man who led Scotland into its first indyref in 2014, with Sturgeon by his side? That is "one of the least important questions of the entire independence debate," Sturgeon said.  "It's not about me, it's not about Alex Salmond, and, with the greatest of respect, it's not even about Patrick Harvie, it's about the people of Scotland."

Further papers on currency, tax, defence, social security, EU membership and more are promised, the sequence and release dates of which have not yet been set. Perhaps these will have the details that the assembled media sought on hard borders, trade and more.

But as Harvie headed off down Princes Street afterwards, sandwich in hand, he and Sturgeon had already said too much — Presiding Officer Alison Johnstone was preparing to issue a rebuke to the government for speaking to the media first, and not parliament. "Significant news that should have been announced in this chamber as a matter of courtesy and respect to parliament was reported by national media," she said.

"Announcements by government on matters of importance should not enter the public domain before or without being communicated to the parliament."

Johnston was so displeased that a planned ministerial statement on the matter by Angus Robertson was pulled from the programme, denying the government's constitutional specialist his turn in the spotlight and leaving him wanting more, too.

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