The National:

THERE won’t be an independence referendum in 2021. While a few politicians have raised the prospect of a snap vote after next May’s elections, the reality and the evidence presents a different picture. Rather than indulge in wish-fulfilment, we have to be honest, look at the challenges we face, and get the work done.

Covid is the obvious barrier to naming a referendum date. We don’t know if Scotland fans can go to Hampden and Wembley next summer – never mind when we can run a full scale referendum campaign. While vaccine progress has brought welcome hope, the roll-out is set to last long into next year. More than 1.3 million people have died worldwide. People rightly expect all governments to save lives and get society back on its feet again. The biggest health crisis in a century will rightly dominate the work of the First Minister, government, and civil service long into 2021.

The Covid crisis has delayed the work required to win independence. The Constitutional Convention, announced in January, doesn’t exist yet. There is no national campaign organisation. The economic case needs updating for a post-Covid world. A macroeconomic strategy is required to set out a confident position on currency, borrowing, and financial regulation. We have to set out in detail how Scotland can rejoin the EU. We can persuade more within the Labour movement to support independence.

READ MORE: Indyref2 will be held next year, says Ian Blackford

There is no evidence that the serious work in those six areas has started or progressed particularly far. The Sustainable Growth Commission, which developed the economic case, took over a year and a half to complete.

The third barrier is securing a legally agreed referendum. The position of the government, correctly in my view, is to currently follow the “gold standard” of 2014. However, it remains likely that the Tories will refuse to co-operate and ignore Scotland’s election results next year. If they refuse, we should build support for a referendum agreed in Scotland – and prove that it is a legal referendum in court.

These three factors combined – Covid, unfinished independence planning, and Westminster intransigence – make a 2021 referendum improbable. That is tough to swallow. Yet it is no reason to give in to despair.

Scottish independence has majority support for the first time in our democratic history. The Tory-Unionist position is in disarray. Their only tactic, to deny democracy and the right to choose, strengthens support for independence. Our greatest danger is that understandable frustration boils over to infighting and self-destruction.

It is easy, in the face of that danger, to pretend that with a flick of a magic wand the pandemic, unfinished planning, and legal barriers all disappear. They won’t. This constant clamour over a precise date in fact causes greater division. When it fails to materialise, those with raised expectations feel betrayed. The March 2017 pledge of a vote by “the spring of 2019” and indyref2020 were bad enough. Let’s not add 2021 to that list. The best alternative is honesty.

With determined leadership, the government will be ready to deliver an independence victory two to three years into the new parliament. This timetable will be faster or slower depending on the level of determination within the SNP and independence movement to deliver and get the work done. We can deliver the better country we all want. That journey must be honest and grounded in reality.

Michael Gray is a co-founder of Skotia Media and a political commentator