THE start of a new year is a transition. It brings change, a return from the holidays, and a glance to the future. But "transition" can also take on a political, bureaucratic meaning.

Donald Trump – that train wreck waiting to happen – has his transition team to prepare for his presidential inauguration, which, in principle allows for a smooth hand over of power.

"Transition" sounds nice. It’s smooth and gradual, suggesting no sudden shocks, as encountered on a ghost train, and no looming cliff edge.

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A "transition period" was written in to the plans for Scottish independence. For 18 months after September 2014 Scotland would have remained within the UK until a formal declaration of independence on March 24, 2016.

Over a longer timescale, nationalists have adopted a gradualist strategy for achieving independence through supporting the transition of further devolved powers – first in 1997, then in 2012, and 2016. Each transition – the ceding of control from Westminster to Scotland – was heralded as a way of proving people in Scotland had what it takes for full, self-government.

Yet now, over six months on from the Brexit vote, the boot is on the other foot. It’s Westminster that is desperately in need of a transition period if its EU exit plans are to go smoothly. Of the details that have leaked out of Downing Street (which have been few as there’s little detail to reveal) this issue has become a defining one.

Theresa May has said she does not want a “cliff edge” at the end of the two-year Article 50 process for leaving the EU. The Treasury is also keen that there is economic and trading stability come early 2019, when the EU legal deadline would hit.

So rather that losing current import and export rights, a transition may be requested as part of negotiations. This is particularly controversial for the right-wing Brexiteers at Westminster – who fear that a transition deal to keep the UK closely woven into EU rules would become permanent.

This fear is heightened by the expectation of now-resigned UK chief diplomat Ivan Rogers that rewriting a whole new trade deal could take 10 years – and might never be agreed at all. So Brexiteers like Nigel Farage would rather avoid any transition that might stall their British nationalist revolution, and prefer to jump off the Brexit cliff.

A simple timeline is actually one of the main concerns for Westminster and Edinburgh come the March deadline. If the Tories ask for a transition period they can buy years more time to try to unravel the political contradictions of Brexit. For Scotland of course that adds a new, complicated dimension to the discussions of a fresh independence referendum.

Sturgeon has confirmed that a fresh vote will not take place in 2017. That leaves two options: either a hard Brexit compels a fresh vote before the UK legally exits the EU in March 2019 or a referendum takes place afterwards perhaps during that transition period.

Now Sturgeon has said that a referendum “has to be on the table to make sure Scotland is not driven off a hard Brexit cliff edge”. Commentators and many independence supporters (including myself) originally interpreted this as meaning that unless hard Brexit is avoided before 2019, a fresh referendum takes place. Yet would a transition extend that 2019 indyref deadline to include any future phase of negotiations?

Sturgeon, after all, has her own contradictions of timing to untangle. Quite simply, a fresh vote in 2018 is a big risk. Only a couple of years has passed since the last referendum – an all-consuming, lengthy campaign. Public opinion, demographics, and the media are all largely entrenched where they were before.

The EU and its single market, while important to trade, isn’t an issue that stirs public passions – and if anything it also divides opinion with a chunk of Yes voters also being Eurosceptics. Can those contradictions be unravelled in a year?

This is why I think that, come March, the transition period is the issue to which we must pay close attention. Seeking a transition would be a sign that Theresa May is scaling back the ambitions for the two-year negotiation, splitting her hard Brexit into two separate negotiations.

That could provide the independence movement with its perfect opportunity: rather than rush to an immediate referendum, a transition means that the Tory re-election in 2020 would become the real powder-keg moment.

By 2020 the Tories will, potentially, be putting migrant controls above economic common sense, signalling further cuts to social support, and be divided during stage two of their hard Brexit. Could there ever be clearer circumstances for independence?

Of course, any transition period can only be granted to the UK's Brexit negotiators if the members of the EU Commission, the other 27 EU states, and the EU parliament are willing to offer it. Would it be granted? Will it come at a price? Will we be forced into a 2018 referendum after all? Whatever happens, it will be important that time is on our side.