IT’S 8.30am on Thursday May 13 2021 and, in the warm spring sunshine, government ministers are hurrying along Downing Street for the weekly Cabinet meeting. The reporters and camera crews corralled behind the crush barriers opposite Number 10 notice the arriving politicians are unusually subdued, offering no smiles or replies in response to the shouted questions from the press. Even the normally jaunty Michael Gove has lost his pawky demeanour as he scurries through the door, head down, clutching his Starbucks coffee.

Inside, the atmosphere around the long table is decidedly sombre. There are many pressing matters on the agenda, not least the trade and economic difficulties arising from the poor Brexit deal signed in desperation the previous December. However, all items have been demoted to allow a full discussion of the previous week’s Holyrood elections.

The Cabinet secretary calls for order and opens by confirming that the SNP have won an overall majority of three seats but, with the addition of the Greens and four independent nationalists who gained list seats, the constitutional allegiance of the new Scottish Parliament is pro-independence 78, pro-Union 50, a majority of 28. He also reminds the Cabinet, as if it was necessary, that Nicola Sturgeon had intimated to a packed press conference the morning after the election she would ensure the new parliament’s first action would be to pass a bill requesting the powers to hold indyref2.

The discussion that follows is forceful and laced with invective. The hardliners, Raab, Zahawi and Rees-Mogg, demand that any Section 30 request from Edinburgh should be rejected out of hand and “that awful woman” ignored completely. Wiser heads counsel that such actions would be unsustainable and probably damaging to the Unionist cause. Meanwhile, Alister Jack, the Scottish Secretary, stays silent and stares at his notes. Suddenly, crashing his hand onto the table, Johnson declares “I think I have the answer here!”

READ MORE: Section 30 will never be granted, so we must present an alternative

The document the Prime Minister waves above his head is a transcription of the proposal Dominic Cummings and his “weirdos” have come up with over a frantic weekend at Chequers, minus the expletives of course. As he begins to read he says: “Brilliant, this will shut up these bloody Jocks.”

I feel the scenario described above is a likely approximation of what will unfold after the Scottish parliamentary elections. The questions the Scottish Government and the wider Yes movement must address now, in August 2020, is what is in Cummings’s paper and, crucially, how do we respond?

Dominic Cummings’s only interest in Scotland is preventing it becoming an existential threat to his boss and his government, thus an immediate second referendum is to be avoided at all costs, especially with the polls now showing support for independence around 54%. Cummings may be ruthless and a liar, but he is not stupid.

Surprisingly, his paper rejects a flat refusal of the Scottish Government’s request. He proposes Westminster agrees “in principal” to hold indyref2 in the second half of 2025. However, a number of caveats would be integral to this plan. These would include a legal clause preventing any further referendum on independence for 25 years. In addition, both parliaments would require to formally endorse the referendum at least nine months before the vote. This gets Johnson off a number of uncomfortable hooks and would allow him to declare he had prevented indyref2 during the term of the current UK Parliament, which will end by December 2024 at the latest. It also counters potentially tricky criticism from other democracies – and the UN, who would object to an absolute denial of the expressed wishes of the Scottish people. Johnson could happily pedal the line that he would, of course, sanction the referendum and, exuding reasonableness, say that at least 10 years should pass before a second vote. Finally, this plan kicks indyref2 down the road for several years as Cummings and Johnson wait, like Dickens’ Micawber, for something to turn up.

How does Holyrood and the Yes movement respond to this? I suspect we all realise there are two ways to go. The immediate instinct is to react with justifiable outrage at a denial of the democratic choice of the Scottish people. The possibilities here include a legal challenge in the Supreme Court, holding a referendum without UK Government agreement, an appeal to the UN, a motion to repeal the Act of Union, withholding taxes, a Westminster walkout/boycott and as many marches as the Covid crisis will allow.

These scenarios would certainly enthuse many committed Yes campaigners. At last something was happening and we were taking decisive action. However, we must be sensitive to those who voted No in 2014 but are now considering supporting independence driven by Brexit and dislike of the Johnson government. There is a real possibility they would be intimidated by a combative, adversarial campaign and the majority polling for Yes might begin to drift. Holding a unilateral referendum would provoke a Unionist boycott, render the result invalid and play into the Tories’ narrative of illegality. Despite the satisfaction of confronting Westminster with our just demands, there are many pitfalls in taking this route.

READ MORE: The legal case for indyref2 is strong – we must prepare for a court battle

What’s the alternative? Offered a Section 30 sanctioned referendum in 2025, the Scottish Government should accept, but only after the negotiation of safeguards such as an “honest broker” from the UN or the EU to ensure the vote was delivered as agreed. We then have four years to articulate the message that we have started our journey to a better Scotland and that “independence is normal” against the background of a firm date for the referendum. During

this time the SNP must ensure continuing improvement in areas such as health and education and unveil the prospectus for the economy and currency in an independent Scotland. Nicola, to the annoyance of Johnson and the Tories, must meet world leaders as the putative First Minister of a new Scotland. She must court the EU, especially where an endorsement for rapid assimilation to membership would be invaluable.

I realise this gradualist approach will enrage many in the wider Yes movement who will be ready for confrontation with Westminster, particularly after a probable crushing win for independence next May. However, we must understand that we lost the last referendum and I have no wish to lose another. The Tories have given us a second opportunity with Brexit and the follies of Johnson and Cummings. So let’s show a little patience, but most of all, this time, let’s win

Iain Gunn