Scottish independence: Nicola Sturgeon shows she'll do all she can within the law – Ian Swanson

A majority of Scots don’t want an independence referendum on Nicola Sturgeon's chosen date of October 19 next year, a poll shows.

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They probably don't need to worry. The First Minister knows as well as anyone that there is little chance of Boris ‘Not Now’ Johnson deciding to grant a Section 30 order giving Holyrood the power to go ahead with Indyref2. And she also knows that the odds are against the UK Supreme Court ruling the Scottish Parliament is entitled to hold another referendum off its own bat.

But in a way that is the point of her announcement last week. By setting a date, asking for a Section 30 order and referring her own Bill to the Supreme Court, she is doing everything she can to fulfil the SNP's promise of a fresh vote on Scotland's future.

And if she is blocked at each turn, it makes the case very starkly that Scotland is trapped in the Union with no way to leave. She told MSPs: “It will clarify that any notion of the UK as a voluntary union of nations is a fiction and that any suggestion that the UK is a partnership of equals is false.”

That's when she would go for her last resort – turning the next general election, likely to be in 2024, into a "de facto referendum" on independence.

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It’s a clever strategy because it efficiently sees off a number of potential problems in one go.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced a date for a referendum on Scottish independence last week (Picture: Russell Cheyne/PA)

Setting a date answers the complaints of internal critics impatient to get on with it. Referring the Bill to the Supreme Court, rather than waiting for it to be challenged, speeds up a verdict on the lawfulness issue.

And by insisting there will be no referendum if it is ruled unlawful, she spikes the opposition attack line that she will call a "wildcat" Catalonia-style referendum and removes any grounds for pro-Union parties to boycott a vote.

Respected academic Professor James Mitchell says there is no such thing as a "de facto referendum". But veteran Nationalist politician Jim Sillars has pointed out that single-issue general elections are not unknown – just think of Boris Johnson's 2019 campaign to "Get Brexit Done" or Ted Heath's battle with the miners which led to the February 1974 election on "Who governs Britain?"

The problem, as Ted Heath discovered, is it doesn't necessarily produce the answer you want.

And Ms Sturgeon is not seeking any easy way out here. She is not turning the clock back to the SNP's pre-devolution stance that winning a majority of Scottish seats would give the party a mandate to negotiate independence.

She has been clear that if the 2024 election is to be a de facto referendum, it would be the number of pro-independence votes which decided it. And winning an overall majority of votes is not easy. Even in the 2015 landslide when the SNP won 56 out of 59 seats, its share of the vote was 49.97 per cent with the fellow pro-independence Greens on 1.35 per cent.

So as well as clever, the strategy is also courageous given the First Minister's instinctive caution.

If she is to succeed, she and her colleagues now need to campaign as never before to win the maximum support for independence.