SCOTLAND has its date with destiny this week as the UK Supreme Court decides on whether the SNP government can initiate a second independence referendum.

The judges’ rush to a ruling suggests the answer will be in the negative but let us await history. Either way, now that the Tory Budget has been published, we can map out the probable political landscape for the next two years.

If the Supreme Court gives a thumbs up to a referendum, we are off to the races next October.

That’s a very short period for preparation and debate. Of course, the SNP leadership is only proposing an indicative vote, not a binding one (which would require the unlikely acquiescence of the Conservative government).

It is clearly open to the Unionist parties to either boycott or sabotage the referendum by various legal shenanigans.

However, I would bet that the popular and media momentum behind any referendum would make it difficult for the Unionists to play dog in the manger. For instance, if the Tories tried to ignore the vote, the LibDems are likely to try to seize a bit of the limelight by posing as the “saviours of the Union”.

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That would force the Scottish Tories to get off their backsides. Labour will certainly use an indyref2 as a platform to prattle on about “social issues rather than the constitution” – but that would inevitably push them into the referendum debate.

In the event that the referendum goes ahead next year, the problem for the independence camp is the dire state of the economy, not a potential Unionist boycott. The Chancellor has made much of the pain he is about to inflict on us all, in order to placate the City of London after the madhouse of the Truss interlude.

But Jeremy Hunt has been very canny and very party-political in how he has done his Budget sums.

While Hunt is taking £55 billion out of the economy and cutting disposable incomes by 7%, he has pushed the major spending cuts back in time till after the 2024 General Election.

That means the Tories can fight the election saying they are keeping the triple lock on pensions (for now) and raising welfare benefits in line with inflation (for now).

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Big, totemic capital projects also remain on the balance sheet (for now). And the unfunded commitment left over from the Truss era to raise defence spending to 3% of GDP – diverting £100bn in spending away from civilian priorities – has been quietly binned (for now).

The net result is that the Tories are by no means out for the count when it comes to the next election. Labour may be 20 points ahead in the polls, but Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves are so woke that their election manifesto will certainly embrace Tory austerity – and then some.

Hunt has effectively closed down any potential Labour criticism on pensions and welfare credits. We will get lots of attack lines about the Tories “picking our pockets” but everyone knows Labour will do nothing differently. Which means the polling gap between Labour and the Tories will narrow sharply during any election campaign.

Sunak and the Tories are running on an “economic competence” ticket, and they could win.

This scenario leaves the SNP with a series of political dilemmas. First, a potential indy referendum will be fought in the crosshairs of a UK General Election campaign that hinges primarily on UK economic security.

An election where the Tories are promising to protect pensions and welfare benefits from inflation – areas that will be central to the independence debate. It’s not that I don’t think the SNP leadership has a strong case to make. UK state pensions are woefully low compared with Europe and index-linked pensions have been exposed as a gigantic financial gamble.

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Scottish economic independence is definitely preferable to the rickety UK offering for pensioners and the working poor.

It’s just that I fear the default position of the SNP is always to suggest that independence is only a modest step that hardly changes anything. That we will keep the pound in order to ensure existing final salary pensions are protected from exchange rate fluctuations.

But there is a whopping hole in this conservative SNP proposition. The market meltdown and interest rate explosion caused by the Truss “dash for growth” exposed the dangerous investment practices of the UK pension funds.

We almost lost the pension funds (and our pensions) but for the emergency intervention of the Bank of England printing billions of cash to bail out the City.

That option is not available to an independent Scottish government and central bank that keeps sterling. And that point will be hammered home mercilessly in every independence referendum broadcast and debate. We are where we are politically.

If the referendum die is cast, then we fight with all economic guns blazing.

But the political terrain is hardly the best for the indy movement, with the Tories (who caused a lot of the financial problems) and Labour exaggerating the economic uncertainties of independence while lauding the UK safety net – even if the latter is full of gaping holes.

The solution is to be bold, not defensive – to argue for complete economic sovereignty for Scotland, not just a little bit. A Tory chancellor who is cutting incomes by 7% is in no position to lecture the independence movement about economic risks.

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But what if the Supreme Court vetoes a second referendum?

Inevitably, this will be potentially demoralising for the movement, even if some of us thought such a verdict was inevitable. The solution is to throw ourselves into the General Election campaign and secure a majority for the independence parties in seats and votes.

Is that the basis for negotiating independence?

I suspect it depends on the scale of our victory. A modest 50:50 split in the vote will let the Unionists off the hook. A 60:40 split would frighten the Unionists and force their hand. Again, this suggests we be bold in our electioneering rather than placatory. Real independence implies a radical break, not a tip-toe.

The outcome of the 2024 election could surprise us. It may result in a tiny Labour majority or the Tories hanging on by their fingertips. Even with Labour’s current 20-point lead, Starmer only ends up with a majority of around 36.

If that poll lead evaporates, so does any Labour majority – leaving the SNP in a pivotal position at Westminster. Of course, Starmer would want to avoid treating with the SNP but he may not be able to avoid some accommodation.

However, playing for a draw is not where we are at the moment. The national movement needs to prepare for action, be it a referendum or a General Election. Campaigning has to begin now. That means the SNP government has to be as political in its calculations as Chancellor Hunt.

For starters, the SNP administration has to show it will defend living standards from Tory Budget theft by granting wage rises that offset inflation. That begins with Scotland’s hard-pressed teachers.

A strategy that prioritises “responsible government” is now equivalent to implementing Tory austerity. And that will not win independence.