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9 October 2018updated 24 Jul 2021 5:10am

Nicola Sturgeon’s grown-up conference speech shows a strategy for independence

Though some Nats are straining at the leash, the SNP leader is pursuing her goal with patience.

By Chris Deerin

Come the SNP conference, come yet another phoney war of independence. The past few days have seen Nat politicians rattle their claymores and growl towards London as they have warned Theresa May not to block a second independence referendum.

It’s all a bit silly, and even a little amusing, but not hugely significant – those Nationalists in a position to make a decision on the issue have little intention of doing so any time soon. The SNP won’t call another national vote on separation until the polls show for a sustained period that it would win such a contest. The polls do not currently show that. They have not shown that at any point since the SNP lost the first referendum in 2014.

Further, the Scottish government does not currently have a legal mandate to stage such an event. It would have to secure a Section 30 order from the British government giving it permission to go ahead. May, and anyone who might replace her before the next Scottish devolved election in 2021, is not going to give permission. The more excitable Nats can mumble about “Catalonia” all they like: sensible separatists blanch at the comparison; the prospect of peaceful, measured, unoppressed Scotland supporting the idea of an illegal referendum is entertained only by idiots.

But the avid masses gathered in Glasgow for the party conference and parading through the streets of Edinburgh at the weekend needed some red meat. Nicola Sturgeon marched them up the hill following the Brexit vote when she announced, on the back of Scotland’s strong preference for Remain, that she was putting in place plans for a second referendum. She lost a third of her MPs at the subsequent general election, leaving her in little doubt what Middle Scotland – that bit of the nation that is as yet unconvinced but not entirely inconvinceable about separation – thought of her rushed wheeze.

This week, some sought to march them up the hill again. Joanna Cherry, an MP and ally of Alex Salmond, suggested the party could instead use an alternative “democratic event” such as a general election to win independence. It was once SNP policy that winning a majority of seats at a Westminster election would be a mandate to start negotiations for independence. At that time the party did not have – and nor did it ever seem likely to have – a majority of Westminster seats. Now that it does have the majority, it no longer has the policy. And it seems likely that if it were to readopt the policy, and put it in its next Westminster manifesto, it would find itself once again without a majority of Westminster seats.

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Angus MacNeil, an eccentric Nat MP not taken particularly seriously by his colleagues, also called for another way to be found. More relevantly, Mike Russell, Sturgeon’s Brexit minister, told a fringe meeting that if “the unionist parties” block a referendum there would have to be a “healthy discussion about… the democratic way in which Scotland could say it wishes to make a choice​”.

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The thing is, Scotland is not saying it wishes to make a choice, and neither is Westminster saying never. In fact it’s clear, unless you belligerently refuse to see it, that Scotland wants the time to make a judgment on Brexit – not just the event, but the consequences – before considering the issue of independence again.

The wiser heads in the SNP understand this. Sturgeon gets it. Her smarter MPs and MSPs get it. Jim Sillars, the party’s astute former deputy leader, grasps it. “The world before Brexit is no longer the world after Brexit,” he told me. “We don’t have the details of the Brexit treaty yet, or know what the consequences will be. It’s far better [for the SNP] to wait and find out about Brexit: examine it carefully, give it time to operate before considering a second referendum. For example, if the UK signs free-trade deals with Canada and Australia and the US, Scotland needs to decide whether it would adhere to them. We need time to study issues such as these.”

James Mitchell, professor of public policy at Edinburgh University, agrees the ground on which the SNP stands is changing. ‘‘The fact is that the meaning of independence changes all the time, and it always will. It’s contextual.” He also points out that support for independence has gone “no further forward or back since 2014. I’m really struck by how stable everything is in Scottish politics. We seem to have had our period of instability but come through it to this position.”

And this, in a way, was the point of Sturgeon’s speech to SNP conference today. If I could sum it up in a few words: “we’re not there yet, but we have a new strategy that can get us there. Have patience”. If there was any remaining doubt that the First Minister is taking the independence campaign into a new realm, there shouldn’t be any longer. The game now is to show through action and values in a devolved context that Scotland and England are set on different paths; to assert an Obama-esque claim to positivity, progress and social justice, contrasted with the gloom of Brexit and the threat of Boris Johnson or Jacob Rees-Mogg in Downing Street; to show an understanding that those Scots who might be won over will not react well to more ranting and whining and shouting; to “let the fog of Brexit clear”.

“The way we make and win our case must… be a stark contrast to a Leave campaign that was shameful, deceitful and very possibly illegal,” she said. “People look at how parties campaign and conduct themselves, and they make judgments about who we are, the values we hold dear and the kind of country we want to build. So let us resolve today – in everything we do – to embody the positive, progressive, inclusive change we want to see.”

The SNP’s challenge, she warned, was to take the movement’s passion and “blend it with pragmatism, perseverance and patience to persuade those not yet persuaded. So let the passion shine through. But let us always strive to see the argument from the other point of view. We have a duty to answer questions as fully as we can. We owe the people of Scotland no less. The future relationship between the UK and the EU will determine the context in which Scotland would become independent. And so the detail of that will shape some of the answers that people want.”

Again, there was still work to be done. “Our task now is to step up our work to update and strengthen the case.” There was praise for the recent Growth Commission, which admitted real economic challenges lay in the path of an independent Scotland.

It was a grown-up speech. It was, in its way, a gentle slap down for those straining at the leash to go again, soon. It looks very like Sturgeon believes that, barring a major and sudden change in the polls, the route to that second referendum runs through a strong result for the SNP in the 2021 devolved election, and the renewed democratic mandate that would accompany it. She’s not going to jump, or be pushed.

This caution won’t have made everyone in the hall or the wider Yes movement happy. But it’s indisputably the right and honourable thing for the country. Sturgeon’s doing her job.

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