The SNP want to win a second indyref, but not the way the Brexiteers won theirs

Nicola Sturgeon had a good conference that points to a less fractious path to independence, but what happens with Brexit could still upset her plans.

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The SNP leadership team emerged from their party’s annual conference this week with a smile on their faces. They were especially pleased with Nicola Sturgeon’s speech, a group effort that sought to provide some uplift and hope – an offer of something better and Scottish-owned – amid the gloomy morass of Brexit.

It was indeed a sharper offering than usual – a few days on it still reads well. Sturgeon is not known for “the vision thing”, for being the kind of enraptured pulpit storyteller that makes a great orator, but this speech had an impressive energy and craft to it.

It had to. A few days before, the leadership saw off a bid by hard-line rebels to force a shift in the party’s independence strategy. Infuriated by Westminster’s intransigent refusal to grant a Section 30 order, enabling a second independence referendum, the rebels wanted the SNP to develop a “Plan B” for achieving its goal – say, to treat winning a majority of seats in London or Edinburgh as a mandate for separation.

Sturgeon and her team were furious. They have a gradualist approach to gaining independence, winning over growing numbers of voters slowly but steadily so that when and if the referendum comes, there is a sense of democratic solidity to the step. They believe it is working, that they have the momentum, and that a sudden “Plan B” would only frighten the horses.

The claim to momentum was aided by Sir Billy Connolly, perhaps the most universally treasured living Scot, who the week before had publicly jettisoned his well-known contempt for nationalism, telling an interviewer that “Scotland's in great shape. Politically it's in extraordinary shape. It's beginning to stand alone. And they won't take crap anymore. They don't want to settle for whoever England votes for.” Asked if he now supported independence, the Big Yin admitted: “If Scotland would like it, I would like it.” The Nats were cock-a-hoop.

Connolly’s conversion to independence – or to its possibility – is a template for how the leadership think they can win. Each Scot will arrive at the conclusion at their own pace, for their own reasons. Brexit and the rise of English nationalism is doing a lot of the Nats’ heavy lifting, the polls showing a growing number of Scots shifting to a pro-indy, pro second referendum stance. The motivation is almost always the departure of the UK from the EU.

This bake-sale friendliness, this almost priestly welcoming to the flock, is new to the SNP. Under Alex Salmond, Sturgeon’s predecessor, there was a swaggering contempt for those who weren’t fully signed-up separatists – it was “Team Scotland” vs “Team UK”, in which any Scot who didn’t support independence could not be considered part of the former. This Alpha Male chauvinism put off as many voters as it attracted, and perhaps the main focus of Sturgeon’s leadership has been to change course to something more likeable and even emollient.

That much was evident in her speech. The SNP says it doesn’t want a Brexit moment – a sudden shift in public opinion that delivers a narrow, contestable result (though of course one suspects they would take it). Rather, they wish to create the overwhelming sense that independence is now the “settled will” of the Scottish people, as John Smith once famously described devolution. “We will win our independence,” Sturgeon said in her speech. “But not the Brexit way. Not by undermining democracy, demonising those who disagree, and plastering lies on the side of a bus. We will win by inspiring and persuading. So let us resolve today that how we campaign for independence will always reflect the open, tolerant, inclusive and democratic nation we are determined to build.”

The SNP has always been open to and allergic to charges of populism – of being willing to do anything to secure their single constitutional goal. Again, Brexit has helped here, giving Sturgeon a virtuous dividing line. “We oppose the politics of Johnson and Trump,” she said this week. “But… we reject their methods too. Crude populism tramples on the rights of minorities and tears at the very fabric of our democracy. That is not for us. That is not who we are.”

The sense that the Union is sadly broken, even if it long served Scots well, is a key part of today’s SNP playbook. As the party emerged from its Aberdeen conference, Boris Johnson was able to announce a Brexit deal with Brussels, and Sturgeon was again able to portray Scotland as suffering under a system that excludes its national voice and preference.

Under the new deal, Northern Ireland – which voted Remain in 2016 – will have a degree of democratic control over its future relationship with the EU. England and Wales, both of which voted to Leave, will get their wish. Only Scotland must take what it is given, despite voting 62-38 to Remain (Northern Ireland voted 55.8 per cent Remain).

The SNP, unsurprisingly, sees this as fertile territory. As Sturgeon said in her speech, “Wales will have voted to leave. England will have voted to leave. Northern Ireland will be given a say over its future. Scotland will be the only country in the UK to be taken out of the EU against our will and with no say over our future relationship with Europe. That is not a partnership of equals.”

Will Brexit push enough Scots over the line? Will the SNP get their desired new “settled will”? Perhaps. But if the Prime Minister can get his deal through parliament this weekend the subsequent polls will make for interesting reading.

Set against many Scots’ frustration at being forced to leave the EU is the same Brexit-fatigue seen elsewhere in the UK. The debate has consumed Scottish politics much as it has elsewhere. Even Scots – who have been arguing ceaselessly about the constitution for decades – are weary of the groundhoggish nature of the politics of the past few years.

A deal, and a sense of progress, may not be wholly unpopular. If Brexit is achieved there is then a new reality to be addressed, new facts to confront, the reality of going it alone to be observed and tested. Middle Scotland, without which nothing can happen, may rather bed down for a bit than opt for further turmoil and upheaval. That would certainly wipe the smile off Nationalist faces. And it may force “Plan B” back on to the agenda.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland).