FIGHTING a general election on the sole issue of independence as a “de facto” referendum is the SNP’s least preferred option for indyref2 – but it could be a path they’re forced to take.

Few – with notable exceptions such as former First Minister Alex Salmond – think a Section 30 order will be forthcoming from the UK Government.

And many think the small-c conservative impulses of the Supreme Court will find the Scottish Government’s referendum bill beyond Holyrood’s powers.

The onus may fall on pro-independence parties fighting the next UK general election on the sole issue of independence, requiring those in favour of ending the Union to secure 51% of the vote.

The Plan B strategy is risky and SNP high command will not divulge the details of what it would look like beyond asserting their preference for a Section 30 order or a Supreme Court victory.

But some think the dicey tactic could be the most likely outcome.

Professor Murray Leith believes the Scottish Government’s strategy for a referendum, is ‘well thought through’

Angus MacNeil (above), an SNP hardliner who has backed the general ­election strategy since 2018, is one candidate who would be defending his seat on the sole issue of independence, should the legal challenge fail.

“It is what is going to happen,” said the Na h-Eileanan an Iar MP. “There’s not going to be a referendum.”

For MacNeil, the very act of securing a pro-independence majority at the next general election would begin the process of Scotland leaving the United Kingdom.

He said: “It would be the same as what would happen at a referendum – the people have spoken, move to independence.

Westminster or Boris Johnson can’t do a UDI – a unilateral denial of independence.”

There would be “countries waiting in the wing” to recognise an independent Scotland if the “de facto” referendum delivered a pro-independence majority, such as Iceland and the Baltic states, added MacNeil.

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And whichever government was elected to Westminster would be under pressure from all sides to respect the Scottish result, he said.

“There are a lot of fair-minded people in England and if Scotland votes for independence, the Tories, Labour and maybe even some Liberals will respect that and will demand it’s respected,” he added.

But polling expert Mark Diffley (below) warned the Plan B strategy risked not being recognised.

Professor Murray Leith believes the Scottish Government’s strategy for a referendum, is ‘well thought through’

“Of course, it holds no legal weight,” he said. “But as a political tool and mechanism for achieving what they want to, I think it is actually quite a smart move.”

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who announced the publication of the referendum bill on Tuesday as she outlined Scotland’s path to indyref2, has already prepared the Yes movement for judges rejecting the bill.

“It is possible that the Supreme Court will decide that the Scottish Parliament does not have the power to legislate even for a consultative referendum,” she said.

“To be clear: if that happens, it will be the fault of the Westminster legislation, not of the court.”

Professor Murray Leith believes the Scottish Government’s strategy for a referendum, is ‘well thought through’

It is possible the SNP could win a majority of Scottish votes in the next Westminster election, having been “pretty much on the cusp of 50%”, according to Diffley, the founder and director of the Diffley Partnership.

He told the Sunday National: “There is recent precedent for it. If they can persuade the other pro-independence parties to stand down any candidates and have a united front under their banner, then that would also obviously help.

“There is also the possibility it will help them with turnout in getting the vote out.”

Getting other pro-independence parties to stand down could be an issue if it is being considered as an option. The Scottish Greens, who learned of route-map plans at the same time as opposition MSPs and the rest of the country, have not committed to standing down candidates in the next general election.

A Greens spokesman said it was a “matter for discussion within the party”. They stood 22 candidates in Scotland in the most recent general election, picking up around 1% of the popular vote.

If replicated in 2024, the combined total of pro-independence votes would only reach around 46% – well short of the majority being sought.

Professor Murray Leith believes the Scottish Government’s strategy for a referendum, is ‘well thought through’

Speaking with the Sunday National, Salmond, leader of the Alba party, said he saw “no reason” his two standing MPs should step down to clear the way for the SNP in a “de facto” referendum.

If an independence vote was achieved in the next general election, the Scottish Government should begin the process of leaving the Union without attempting another referendum, he said.

“What you do is you say we have a mandate to negotiate independence,” Salmond said.

“And the people who are negotiating are the Scottish Government and the people who are helping are the 50-plus MPs who have just been elected on an ‘independence now’ ticket.”

Murray Leith, professor of political science at the University of the West of Scotland, praised the Scottish Government’s Supreme Court strategy as “well thought through” but doubted the ability of the Yes side to get over the line at a general election.

READ MORE: Indyref2: Yes AHEAD in new poll on support for Scottish independence

He said: “The chances of them taking a majority of the vote are not very good at all – unless people feel strongly about a Section 30 being denied and if the UK Supreme Court turns around and says it is not within the competence of the Scottish Parliament to call a referendum without a Section 30 order.

“I honestly don’t know if that would be enough to tip it – because to get over half the vote in a multi-party electoral system, that is quite something.”

Leith said if the SNP did achieve a majority vote in a general election, the pressure on the UK Government to issue a Section 30 order for an ­“official” referendum would be “very significant” at that point.

“Clearly if – and this is a big if – if that was to occur, then I think the pressure to allow Scotland to have a referendum would be very, very strong,” he said.

“I think that would be the way they want to go, as at the end of the day, 2014 is held up as the gold standard, and everybody says that is the way to decide – a referendum, one single and clear question, with a yes or no choice.”

He added: “This is very much Plan C, but it may well be the only thing we are sure will happen – there will be another general election.”

Salmond is at odds with the prevailing opinion that Boris Johnson will absolutely not agree to a Section 30 order and called a Supreme Court victory for the Scottish Government “the least possible option”.

Professor Murray Leith believes the Scottish Government’s strategy for a referendum, is ‘well thought through’

He told the Sunday National: “I cannot think of a better time in my political lifetime to face down the Westminster Government.”

The key issue in gaining a pro-independence majority at a general election is improving on the enormous turnout of the 2014 election.

Salmond added: “The single biggest challenge for the national movement right now is something which we partially succeeded on in 2014 – to reach those who are not on the register, who don’t normally vote and who, if they did vote, would vote for independence.

“We partially did that in 2014 because the turnout went to 85%. Even by the vast numbers of people who came on to the register for the first time since the poll tax, the turnout in working-class areas was still substantially lower than in middle-class areas.”

The only local authority areas to back Yes in the last referendum were the predominantly working-class cities of Dundee and Glasgow as well as the post-industrial former Labour heartlands West Dunbartonshire and North Lanarkshire.

Professor Murray Leith believes the Scottish Government’s strategy for a referendum, is ‘well thought through’

But concern has also been raised that the Plan B strategy risks extinguishing the independence movement for the foreseeable future – as cold water was poured on the Quebec sovereignty movement following a referendum defeat in 1995, closely followed by a lukewarm general election result for the nationalist Quebecois party.

Leith said: “There are people who voted for the SNP in the past who aren’t necessarily in favour of independence – they aren’t necessarily a huge part of the SNP support but they are there.

“They may be tempted not to vote for the SNP as they don’t want their vote to be taken as a vote for independence. But then again, there may be some people who are very pro- independence and haven’t voted for the SNP – and this time around they are thinking, ‘I am pro-independence and this is the way to get it’.”

The strategy is an all-or-nothing gamble for the independence movement and even if successful could rely on whichever government was elected in Westminster being prepared to take the result as the basis on which to begin negotiations for independence.

It may also require a mass mobilisation of the existing Yes movement, as SNP MP Joanna Cherry argued in The National last week, including the embrace of a “broad church” approach, putting aside other ideological differences.