Kenny MacAskill: There will be a second referendum, it’s timing that’s the issue

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The SNP has come out of its conference in better heart than expected and probably, if truth be told, even party bigwigs anticipated. Much was due to factors beyond its making, but in politics it’s events that matter and as in life luck that’s needed.

As delegates gathered, favourable opinion polls gave a much needed boost to the leadership and to weary activists from a seemingly constant diet of negative headlines. It’s been rough going in recent weeks with health, policing and education all coming under the cosh. But, polling figures were still quite remarkable for a governing party that’s now been in power for 11 years.

Nicola Sturgeon was able to address conference delegates from a reasonably commanding position. Picture: PA

Nicola Sturgeon was able to address conference delegates from a reasonably commanding position. Picture: PA

Likewise figures on how people viewed the economic future of Scotland gave heart to independence footsoldiers only too well aware of the political saying “it’s the economy stupid” and still wounded by the failure to persuade many four years ago. Now, independence no longer looks so scary, though it probably has more to do with the UK no longer looking so secure and with some Brexit scenarios looking positively disastrous.

So, that all put a spring in the step of those there to set out a direction for the party and others there to hear what was planned. It also took the sting out of criticism of Andrew Wilson’s Growth Commission and allowed Nicola Sturgeon to address the gathered faithful from a reasonably commanding position.

As ever it was the overall tone and direction that mattered rather than the giveaways to induce wild applause from the audience – a 3 per cent pay rise for NHS workers as necessary internally as outside the hall. But the setpiece announcements keep the rank and file happy and offset the diet of negativity abroad.

The First Minister then set out the wider strategic tactics to be followed, emphasising the need to build the base for independence rather than obsess about the date. That appears eminently sensible but also a bit like groundhog day. We’re back where we were when she entered into office in November 2014. Just why the party was primed for another referendum battle so soon only she can explain. It’s certainly been a bitter lesson for her and most of all her former colleagues who lost their seats last year.

There will be a second referendum that’s for certain, it’s the timing that’s the issue. Brexit has hindered, not helped, and the situation remains too unclear to go for one just yet. But that could change very quickly and preparation both organisationally and politically required. That would have been better done than marching up to the battlefront of a second referendum only to stand the troops down again. So, there’s lessons to be learned by the SNP and also by their opponents.

Those who oppose both SNP and independence can rest on the old adages that governments lose elections and political gravity brings them all down sometime, as well as the need for those seeking significant constitutional change to make the case successfully. But resting on those assumptions isn’t working and is playing a dangerous game.

For sure the SNP is making heavy weather of being in government but it’s hard and the public know that. They castigate them as they lambast the weather and complain about buses. But, they’ll stay where they are and still use them when they come along. Simply berating them or offering the moon doesn’t wash with the electorate who want a credible alternative, not just an echo chamber of their grievances.

As the Tories and Labour are discovering, it’s not enough to chide the SNP, they need to be seen as a credible alternative which they’re not. The Tories cannot wash away the dysfunctionality and downright brutishness of their London masters and Labour has more faces than Janus, leaving voters unsure just who or what they’re voting for. Scottish politics is beginning to copy Wales where Labour remain in power not through the success of that party but the nature and failure of others.

Likewise on the constitution the assumption by unionists that they could simply rest on the status quo and the failure of the independence campaign to make the case is unravelling. As Brexit beckons with the economic price increasingly being felt by ordinary people and Britain becoming a marginal and sometimes even a malign state, a step into the great unknown isn’t only less fearful but can even become a necessity.

Other nations have experienced that, from the Irish Free State in 1922 to the Baltic States with the collapse of the Soviet Union. There many who would never have countenanced independence saw no alternative to it, due to the behaviour and actions of their former Empire or Union. Those who support the union, as with a political alternative to the Scottish Government, need to articulate a positive case, not rest on perpetual negativity, or they’ll find that the reality of the status quo is worse than the fear of the unknown for many.

There’s also lessons for the SNP though, as chatter is taking place by many inside it and drift being perceived by those outwith it. A ministerial reshuffle is needed not just to reinvigorate them collectively but protect good ministers who are simply suffering from the demands of office. A few new faces would help and moving a few to keep them in the team essential.

Likewise internal debate in the SNP’s long overdue. Top down lectures from the leadership aren’t working and boring many. Vigorous debate is needed and so far most of the best ideas are coming from outwith the party. Embracing not excluding the wider independence support is required. The party leadership need to loosen up. It’s too presidential a government and too centralised a party. Ministers need to be allowed to blossom and ideas within the party flourish. Rather than a coterie directing things from the top, the base needs built from the bottom.

That’s how independence movements succeed and unions fall apart.