John Milton’s classic poem ‘Paradise Lost’ had the stated purpose of justifying the ways of God to men and elucidating the conflict between God’s foresight and free will. For the SNP’s particular view of paradise, Alex Salmond may have to elucidate and justify the foresight that he is claiming to possess (not to mention free will that he is exerting) over the best route to his party’s paradisical view of independence.

There are many reasons why the SNP will have decided to not push any further with its somewhat bruised and battered Referendum Bill but the most pertinent of these reasons is that there is now insufficient time to vote on it, discuss it and actually pass it before next year’s elections.

Further to having it passed in sufficient time, there are also good reasons why the SNP should have made sure that they pushed as hard as possible to implement their manifesto commitment of holding an independence referendum in the past few years, not least because they are now leaving themselves wide open to charges of hypocrisy (as these quotes from SNP Westminster leader Angus Robertson regarding the Lisbon Treaty show)

On Labour:

It is no wonder there is so much cynicism about politicians and the political process, when parties like Labour vote to deny the country the referendum they promised, and the Liberal Democrats sit on their hands.

On Lib Dems:

“the Lib Dems promised a popular vote on the failed EU Constitution in their 2005 manifesto, and just yesterday a poll showed that Lib Dem voters back a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty by more than two to one. Calamity Clegg is not only out of touch with public opinion, he’s clearly out of step with his own party. At one fell swoop he’s broken a manifesto promise, divided his MPs and lost his authority as party leader.”

Is there much difference between Labour’s aversion to a Lisbon Treaty referendum and the SNP’s aversion to putting forward an independence referendum?

Well, there is actually. In ‘publishing’ a white paper, the SNP has matched what it stated as one of its priorities in its 2007 referendum:

“Publication of a White Paper, encompassing a Bill, detailing the concept of Scottish independence in the modern world as part of preparations for offering Scots the opportunity to decide on independence in a referendum, with a likely date of 2010.”

The “likely date” of 2010 never did come to pass but there is no unbroken pledge in there as far as I can see.

Of course, this is technical details and politicking that we are all supposed to be moving away from though one wonders just how far into the future the SNP was thinking when it penned its popular 2007 manifesto. However, the bottom line is – surely believing in and arguing for your principles is more important than ducking the argument because you know you are going to lose; as was the case with Lisbon and is the case now.

So, how smart the politics of all of this is remains to be seen but it is worth mentioning that this seemingly newly adopted strategy is a departure from what the perceived plan for this parliamentary term was for the Nationalists – namely to have a Referendum Bill voted down by the Unionist parties and then take their case and their umbrage to the people at the 2011 election.

The current situation is more nuanced and involves pros and cons for Alex Salmond as he tries to beat off the strong challenge from Labour, (if not strong specifically from Iain Gray). The White Paper was called ‘Your Scotland, Your Choice’ and so it remains as we are back to hearing the same arguments as we did in 2007.

Advantages to dropping the Bill

– The Bill has not been blemished by the stain of parliamentary defeat so maintains a purity that may invite public popularity while simultaneously repelling attacks from opposing parties.

– One cannot reasonably take a rejected proposal to the people to ‘let them have their say’ when those same people’s representatives have just voted down that same policy proposal. Although we know what the result would have been had a vote taken place, an independence referendum is as valid a topic for discussion as, say, the economy and education, if Parliament hasn’t just had its say on the matter.

– Party morale will remain higher knowing that it won’t just be an SNP majority or SNP/Green coalition that can deliver a referendum, as would have been the case if each of Labour, Lib Dems and Tories had just voted no to a referendum in late 2010.

– With unionist MPs from both sides of the border already having considered backing a referendum in order to end the issue once and for all, there is every chance that such a view may be taken once more after the heat of an election contest has faded and the posturing gives way to consensus-building.

Disadvantages to dropping the Bill

– this adds credence to the various suggestions that the SNP has broken too many of the manifesto commitments that carried it into Government in the first place (LIT, dumping student debt, class sizes, PE in schools, free fruit in schools, Scottish Futures Trust). The din will soon be a cacophony, with varying degrees of justification for each pledge.

– a sceptical public may wonder at the lack of urgency from the SNP, urging Scotland to be independent for its economy’s sake, but reluctant to get on with discussing the merits of holding a referendum which would get us there and oddly content to procrastinate on the matter.

– What was the National Conversation for, not to mention the civil service hours spent on referendum questions, if the corresponding Bill wasn’t even going to be put before Parliament? Money has been wasted in the past four years and, given the cuts that are on their way, that could be a damaging mistake if the amount is quantified and significant.

Were Labour to win power next year and the SNP to find themselves coming through their perfect storm and into the calmer but unwanted waters of Opposition with little to nothing to show for it, history may not be kind to the Nationalists with regards its tactics on independence and the 2007-2011 parliamentary term.

The situation would beg the question – how did a decades-old Nationalist party, having formed the first Government in its history, fail to put a Referendum Bill before Parliament and argue their case for independence in the national Parliament in the full glare of the public and the national media?

I do not know how Holyrood works in detail but, for the SNP’s sake and if there is still time, this Referendum Bill should be put before MSPs as the strawman that it is and Gray, Goldie and Scott should be forced into voting it down. Only then can the opposition leaders be clearly painted as the obstacles to Scots having a say on Scotland’s future.

I am sure historians would pick better words than these but ‘bottled it’ might be the settled historical opinion if this reported rethink on a referendum is realised.

Indeed, Alex Salmond famously claimed that Gordon Brown was ‘the feartie fae Fife’ but the First Minister’s not very brave manoeuvrings with this referendum could ironically peg him as ‘the bottler fae Banff’.

Paradise lost? Power lost? Party leader lost? We could see the SNP selecting a new party leader in mid-2011 if this all goes horribly wrong and, amidst the internal conflict that that would inevitably cause, also the prospect of the Nats remaining in Opposition for a few parliamentary terms to come. Poetic justice perhaps for those outwith the SNP who have so consistently failed to shine in Salmond’s shadow.

This is an enormous decision for the SNP and, while there is still all to play for for the Nats, there is also everything to lose.