This could be Nicola Sturgeon's time to act - but what can she do?

Allegra Stratton

Former National Editor

If Northern Ireland could break away from Britain, what about Scotland?

Again, Brexit has made it more likely and a few days here, it feels very real.

Just as in Northern Ireland where 58% voted to remain in the EU, in Scotland at the last election the 62% vote against Brexit has appeared to morph into a boost for the ‘stop Brexit’ SNP.

Sturgeon won 48 of 59 seats. But whereas in Northern Ireland it’s a surreptitious slower burn of a debate… in Scotland it’s cranking up to full volume.

We joined the Green Party preparing their independence march on Friday in Glasgow – seeing these guys unpack their independence leaflets, I felt like I was in a neverendum.

They are choosing to mark the day we finally act on the result of a previous referendum by stepping up the fight for another one.

I remember spending a lot of time in Scotland five and a half years ago during the first Indyref – then we were told it wouldn’t be asked again “for a generation”.

Then it ended up being 45-55 - now reputable polls have it at 49-51 to No. That is margin-of-error stuff, most seemed to accept that it is neck and neck.

Going in to a referendum with those numbers is a pretty good starting point for Nicola Sturgeon.

The result of a second referendum could be a lot closer than the first. Credit: PA

And indeed you can feel a palpable sense in Scotland on the eve of Brexit that this is a country right now that would like to cut its ties with the rest of the UK.

We spoke to quite a few people who said: “I was against it last time, but now… with everything that has happened…”

Of course, neck and neck isn’t the same as saying everyone is convinced.

We spoke to Neil, a student, at Stirling University who said he had been in favour, but now he was against it – that he lives in the Highlands and feels most acutely that his family’s fortunes are tied to trade with the rest of the United Kingdom.

Who knows where the current 50-50 would eventually end up in any referendum campaign.

The experience of the Brexit campaign would suggest this is the SNP’s to win, but the debate about Scottish independence was complicated and intricate last time round and that hasn’t changed.

Boris Johnson has so far refused t entertain the idea of another referendum. Credit: PA

The more immediate problem is 'how?'

Boris Johnson is steadfastly, perhaps some would say stubbornly, denying her the section 30 she needs for Indyref2.

What to do about this intransigence from Westminster appears to be a serious political dilemma for Nicola Sturgeon that is dividing her party.

She could wait until the Holyrood elections next year and return another platoon of SNP MSPs who have the clearest mandate yet for independence (with some justification they say recent election results have already given them that mandate) and at that point hope that Boris Johnson’s refusal looks too heavy handed for him to keep up (erm – I don’t think looking heavy handed has ever really bothered Boris Johnson’s team).

Or she could go for a Catalonian style informal referendum which is flawed too, says Emily St Dennys of Stirling University.

It becomes little more than a large opinion poll and its legitimacy will be questioned immediately if – for instance – Remain in the UK voters decide to boycott it.

There is the legal challenge avenue but many fear that is tricky and time consuming.

There are some lawyers who believe that current devolved legislation gives the SNP the right to ignore Westminster already.

The point is, right now, no one knows.

Nicola Sturgeon has an opportunity, perhaps. Credit: PA

Why the rush?

Well, I think it’s because Nicola Sturgeon has a moment - the future shape of Brexit is unclear and Scotland still feels defined by its 62% desire to leave the EU and ignored and treated roughly by Westminster.

Leave it too long and the heat goes out of the situation or indeed, whisper it quietly, Brexit ends up not being too 'bad' for the people of Scotland.

Once the actual terms of the UK/EU trade deal are known, independence might become a harder sell since it could lead to friction in trade between the EU, Scotland and a rump UK.

That's why an SNP MSP wrote a piece suggesting their future should be independent, but not necessarily in the EU.

Scotland has a strong link with Europe – a lot of its business and agriculture supply chains are intertwined with the continent and, since its population is older than the rest of the UK, it relies on European immigration to sustain its workforce.

So Westminster has much work to do to make sure Scots come to like, let alone love, Brexit. Even though it isn’t clear how she gets her referendum, Nicola Sturgeon will sense that her window of opportunity is now and that if Brexit is a success, Independence will fall back in urgency.

Nicola Sturgeon will feel she has to act, but no one knows how.