HERE is the big “known” from yesterday’s statement by Nicola Sturgeon on the independence referendum: the First Minister remains by far the best political operator in Scotland. Here’s the second one: she’s up against the weakest political opposition in Holyrood’s 23-year history.

But first, the most obvious observation – what Sturgeon is proposing is a process that could have commenced as soon as it became clear that the UK Government was pursuing the hardest of all Brexits.

Indeed, many of the SNP supporters acclaiming yesterday’s clear route map towards a second independence referendum were mocking Chris McEleny for advocating a similar strategy three years ago. McEleny, the former SNP leader on Inverclyde Council, is now general secretary of Alba.

It’s also in line with what Joanna Cherry has been advising the SNP to do for several years.

This is what McEleny presented to the SNP conference in 2019: “If a referendum on Scotland’s future is denied by the UK Government and the competence to hold a consultative referendum is not established, then the manifesto for the 2021 Scottish Parliamentary elections shall state that the election of a pro-independence majority of seats, in the absence of a referendum, shall be a mandate from the people of Scotland to commence independence negotiations with the UK Government.”

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For daring to suggest such a thing, McEleny was jeered and abused by hand-picked party activists who had been given the two front rows for the sole purpose of marginalising him. The level of control exerted by Sturgeon does not seem to allow for “freelancers” such as McEleny and others being seen to influence party policy. Only those considered to be the right sort – culturally and spiritually – can be allowed to do such a thing.

Cherry, the SNP’s most formidable performer at Westminster, has also been a fervent advocate of establishing a legal route beyond Boris Johnson’s persistent “Nyet”. Yet, she, too, has been cast into the outer darkness. The SNP’s former shadow justice secretary at Westminster – until she was sacked by Ian Blackford following an orchestrated campaign to undermine her – was well placed to pursue a legal case for holding a second referendum.

She was held in high esteem by senior Tories as one of the few Westminster Scottish nationalists capable of matching them in mature debate. She also possessed invaluable big-match experience of this territory.

In September 2019, she led the Scottish court case which challenged Boris Johnson’s prorogation of the UK Parliament. Along with a similar case brought in England by Gina Miller, it led to the Supreme Court quashing Johnson’s stunt. It would be utter folly if the SNP had not capitalised on Cherry’s successful dealings with the Supreme Court as it seeks to plead its case.

SNP members and those of us in the wider Yes movement are entitled to ask why it’s taken until now for Nicola Sturgeon to act on the strategies proposed by McEleny, Cherry and her Westminster colleague, Angus MacNeil.

There are other questions too. Why did the First Minister and Ian Blackford and their acolytes feel the need also to humiliate and marginalise the architects of what she is now proposing? Just what did these three have in common that seemed to send some influential people in the party into such a frenzy of vengefulness?

The SNP’s Westminster group, which will be in the vanguard of a plebiscite election in 2024 (if not before), has been reduced in these last three crucial years.

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It’s led by a lame duck politician who has been badly damaged by issues surrounding his handling of the Patrick Grady affair. It’s also home to the party’s right-wing rump of Nato and nuclear fetishists. The Westminster group simply can’t be trusted to go for the messages right now, let alone lead the fight for the most crucial election in the party’s history.

Nicola Sturgeon must sort this out as a matter of urgency – and show true leadership by swallowing her pride and inviting Cherry to play a significant role in the struggle. And we’ll all know in time if the three-year delay in acting on their plan has damaged the case for a second referendum.

Yesterday, Nicola Sturgeon outlined the moral reasons why Scotland had earned the chance to seek independence. It was a compelling one. The extreme form of Brexit chosen by the UK Government and the damage to trade and industry, along with an end to freedom of movement and the attacks on workers’ rights have profoundly harmed Scotland and reduced the UK to a pariah state among civilised nations.

This has been reinforced by the outcomes of 10 elections in four different UK jurisdictions – Holyrood, Westminster, local authorities and European Parliament – which have all returned comfortable pro-Scottish independence majorities. The First Minister could have added, with substantial justification, that the original case for the Union in 2014 was built around a false prospectus: that it guaranteed continued membership of the European Union.

But if the Supreme Court rules against Holyrood’s legal competence to hold a second referendum next October (and few would bet against it doing just that) then the SNP must hope that by the time of the planned plebiscite election in 2024 Britain’s present troubles and chaos will still prevail.

In the political sphere that’s a long time to assume the public mood will remain dark about Boris Johnson. And if the UK Labour Party’s support continues an upwards trajectory in the opinion polls, the window for Scottish independence may already have started to shut.

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What is clear is that none of Holyrood’s opposition leaders have anything in their armoury to oppose a second referendum. Their responses yesterday were pathetic. The blustering and fatuous contribution of Alex Cole-Hamilton, leader of the Liberal Democrats, was one of those times where you hoped that no-one else in the UK was still watching the television to witness it.

Cole-Hamilton, Anas Sarwar and Douglas Ross are simply not up to the task of leading a party (even the Scottish satellite versions of their UK motherships). They are all strictly third division. Effectively, what they said amounted to this: “The referendum will be divisive and will distract Scottish voters from more pressing issues. We’re too small and unsophisticated to concentrate on more than one concern at a time.”

It was wretched fare.

Yet, seeing as I’m a glass half-full sort of chiel, the proposed date of October 19 for the referendum is an interesting one. On the same date in 1781, the British Army surrendered at Yorktown, Virginia. This effectively ended Britain’s hopes of hanging on to its American colonies and virtually guaranteed American independence.