BEFORE the 1997 General Election, Roy Jenkins likened Tony Blair’s challenge as being like carrying a Ming vase across a polished floor. The last steps to independence will be more like battling through a snowstorm to a mountain summit.

Effort, and concentration will be essential. In the face of bitter opposition from Unionists, success will take the utmost determination to present clearly and insistently how Scotland will be not just different but better.

For the first time in many years, I have recently been involved in discussions about policy formulation in a political party. This still seems to involve answering the closely related questions “What will work (and is consistent with our values)?” and “How can we persuade voters that this is in their interests?”

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An obvious point: developing a policy which seems entirely coherent, and which resonates with party activists, but which the vast bulk of voters simply consider to be odd is a waste of effort.

That was the context for Roy Jenkins’s remarks. For much of the previous 15 years, the Labour Party’s policies had not resonated widely enough for it to make a credible offer to the electorate. We may not like this, but the same was true for the Yes campaign in 2014. Despite its festive nature throughout the country and the widespread engagement of people in discussion about what would happen if Scotland became independent, the majority still accepted the “No, thanks,” message of Better Together, avoiding the risks of change.

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Just now, I keep coming across campaigners who have a sunny optimism which eludes me, firstly that we are close to having a second referendum and secondly, that this time the Yes campaign will be so well organised and led that it will prevail. Opinion polls give little reason for that confidence, which more likely comes from people being in an echo chamber of like-minded activists.

Remember we have a Conservative UK Government largely because the leadership of the opposition parties could not see how they were being outmanoeuvred politically. The leadership of both the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats welcomed an early election in 2019, with Jo Swinson (above) deluding herself she was in line to be Prime Minister.

Choosing the wrong time, and the wrong message in any political campaign can be disastrous. But with the independence referendum, I fear it will take until 2025 to prepare for it fully. Rather as General Colin Powell (below) advocated delaying military action until it could be carried out from a position of overwhelming strength and popular support, a rush to a referendum without laying the groundwork to win arguments courts heroic failure.

The National: Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is shown in a 1989 photo. Powell, former Joint Chiefs chairman and secretary of state, has died from Covid-19 complications, his family said Monday, Oct. 18, 2021. (AP Photo)

The referendum should affirm the settled will of the Scottish people. I see no evidence that that currently exists in the way it was clear well before 1997 that Scots were firm in their support for some form of devolution.

Coming back to the hill climbing analogy, if a referendum is held within two years, the blizzard of opposition to its position will be so fierce that the Yes campaign could once again be driven back just short of the summit. The people of Scotland, perhaps sullenly and with little enthusiasm, may still prefer the known dysfunction of the UK to further uncertainty. In saying this that I might be displaying the biases – perhaps the weaknesses – of an academic. I still want to sift evidence, and to ensure that policies which form the independence platform are pragmatic plans to put into practice measures which have been tried, and found to work, elsewhere.

ESPECIALLY contemplating the huge leap in the government’s responsibilities, which will come with independence, I also want to find ways of setting the trajectory for the institutions which will operate after independence now.

We quite often say that independence is normal. By the time of the referendum, I want a large majority of people to think that independence is natural, and that voting for it is just another step on a path which can easily be traced back to Scotland’s turning away from the triumphalist British nationalism of the 1980s.

I want the ascent of the mountain to seem as straightforward as riding an escalator. There will be areas where independence should unleash creativity. No government has a well-defined path to achieving carbon neutrality. It seems certain the UK’s strategy will include a lengthy period of dependence on nuclear energy, both in its traditional role of providing base load, and in novel forms as back up to renewables in meeting shortfalls in demand.

Other paths to carbon neutrality are available. COP26, if nothing else, should have provided an excellent showcase of proven concepts, which Scotland might adopt.

Yet, no matter how good the ideas, nothing can be done without finance; and while I don’t doubt the capacity of the private sector to mobilise funds, much will depend on government.

Quite simply, the Scottish Government does not have the powers that it needs – either to tax or borrow – so that it can take on that role.

I suspect that in private, ministers may be willing to accept that; but in public, they are not ready to ask for the necessary powers. Even though they know that the current devolution settlement is unworkable and unstable, they do not want to provoke a dispute with the UK Government which would naturally lead to a referendum.