Jings!During the last Holyrood session, when the referendum was something the SNP could strive for without fear, the Yoonyonisht Conshpirashy (please do read that in Alex Neil’s voice) were consistently agin it, all apart from that glorious moment of Wendyism.

As some in Labour now acknowledge, the idea of Bringing It On might have been cack-handed in its implementation – OK, it was hand-deep in cack – but, the whispers go, it’s the only thing that could possibly have saved Labour in May, and possibly saved the Yoonyon when the time now comes, as come it will.

But Wendyism ceased to be, and Holyrood’s Yoonyonishts reverted to anti-referendumism. Odd, and I’d say ill-advised. The polls then were clear – those who were against having a referendum were those who would win it, while those (apparently) pushing for it were those who would lose. Surely everyone was wrong?

In that last session, bold moves to demonstrate the potency of an SNP administration, and by implication, the opportunities of an independent Scotland, could be scuppered by a Parliament on a knife-edge, a situation which gave a limited (but well-used) bully pulpit for Scotland’s theoretically weakest ever First Minister. A Tory government, that notorious recruiting sergeant for independence, was merely a worrying prospect back in 2008.

Once the SNP’s wafer-thin plurality became a substantial (by Holyrood standards) majority, everyone’s timing rhetoric shifted completely. The day before she resigned, for example, Annabel Goldie taunted Alex Salmond to “take a brave pill” and signed up to Wendyism. Her colleague Liz Smith even used the dread phrase itself. Alistair Darling belatedly followed suit – “why not hold it now?“. Nick Clegg, that political black spot incarnate, refused to rule out Westminster setting up their own Scottish independence referendum. I’m sure that would end well.

And yet, and yet, The Great Puddin’, despite his clear “We Are The Masters Now” moment of triumph, committed during the election to a 2015 or 2016 vote, and apparently remains so committed. At Holyrood, it matters not a jot what anyone else thinks. That’s his schedule, and a Presiding Officer drawn from SNP ranks will, on the schedule of Holyrood’s theoretically most powerful ever First Minister alone, consider the legitimacy of an SNP Bill before it goes to a Committee with an SNP majority, and then to a Chamber with an SNP majority.

On one level it’s hysterical. The holders of the anti-democratic position that we simply shouldn’t ever have a referendum all lost seats and votes, and then still thought it their place to try to dictate the schedule themselves during the aftermath while simultaneously falling over each other to resign first. Everyone deserves their view on the referendum, but surely the result tells anyone with ears that a vote will be held when the SNP alone decides to bring it on?

And yet surely everyone’s still wrong about timing?

If the SNP wants to win this referendum – and let us assume that almost all of them do – holding it at the fag end of Holyrood’s first No Excuses Session is a chronic mistake. There’s always a cost to governing, a price for each decision. Whether it’s right or wrong people will disagree with you. Some quick wins like minimum pricing for alcohol won’t take them very far.

By the end of the session the SNP will have indeed implemented a series of destructive cuts to public services. When the Sun endorsed a Salmond administration, it was in part because, to quote the paper itself, the SNP are “tackling the economic crisis head-on by cutting public spending faster than anywhere else in the UK“. That’s going to hurt.

Patrick got rubbished as ‘negative’ for pointing out that the SNP promises Scandinavian levels of public services with American levels of taxation. The choice has been made, though. Council Tax will be retained and frozen, and token supermarket levy aside, none of the various immediate options for additional revenue will be taken. We’re going to be in Kansas, not Copenhagen.

What’s more, SNP Ministers appear determined to stick to their vague and unconvincing formulation for the Question: that the people of Scotland be asked to approve the idea of opening negotiations with Westminster about independence. As Iain MacWhirter says, what kind of independence will it be? How will the people be consulted on what they want? Involved in a way the National Conversation never did, just like Calman never did? There are apparently no plans of that sort, although I’d like to be proved wrong. If what’s asked feels like a politicians’ bounce (like the AV vote or Australia’s republic referendum) it’ll be lost.

If the SNP thinks they can postpone the key decisions (currency, defence, a formal constitution for post-independence Scotland) until after the referendum, then the campaign will be all about uncertainty. A series of open goals will be presented for Jim Murphy or whoever fronts the No campaign. In favour of the monarchy? The SNP can’t guarantee that as Scotland’s long-term post-independence settlement. In favour of a republic? That’s not what’s on offer, chum. Think signing up to the Euro as it implodes might be a bad idea? That might be what the dastardly Nats want to do once you’ve signed their blank cheque.

A late term, vague referendum is the SNP’s plan, and I personally don’t have any confidence in it. If I were part of the Axis of Resignations I’d sit tight and nod and wait. Or if I was really devious I’d argue frantically for an early vote, in a kind of reverse Brer Rabbit approach. They’re surely not that smart though… are they?

Relying on the best electioneering machine Scotland has ever seen and the FM’s personal luck/strategic sense simply won’t be enough to turn the polls round for a late term campaign fought on these terms. The SNP has long been more popular than independence, but remember, the Yes vote will have to win a bigger share of the actual vote than the party did earlier this month. Re-running that same election won’t deliver a win. For one thing there are many who voted SNP (newspaper editors amongst them) who will be against. And many voted for other parties who will be for – not just Greens and Socialists either.

But there is an alternative. A moderately quick, clear, participative and ambitious process could deliver a win. Get on and deliver a couple of quick legislative successes at Holyrood (minimum pricing and ??). And set up a proper constitutional convention, with a steering group, to tour the country for nine months, meeting across the regions, taking in a plurality of views like the last one had.  It could include not just loyal supporters of independence but the open-minded too, and those for whom it’s not their first choice but who’d rather it works if it’s going to happen.

Ask the people what kind of new Scotland they want, what a better nation would look like. Involve them, make the process theirs, turn ideas over in public, and let meetings inspire debate and debates inspire more meetings. Work by consensus – devolution is actually more complicated a project than independence, and consensus worked before. Aim towards a vote in autumn 2012, long enough for due consideration but not so long that staleness creeps in.

Would the outcome be an up-and-down vote or a multi-option vote? I don’t know. Would the offer be a radically democratic Scotland, not beholden to inherited position, wealth or institutional inertia? A place with key freedoms built in and guaranteed by a written constitution? I hope so, and I’d go further – I’d take part to try and help shape it in that direction.

The polls currently ask people a daft question, a question they can’t answer with what we know already. What, exactly, are they saying yes or no to? Even the mighty Deputy First Minister doesn’t know what the answers are. Running an open and participative process instead would be brave, letting control slip from a majority government to the people, but I believe it’s the only way a referendum can be won, and the only way to build a new Scotland worth the effort.