Kenny MacAskill: Why it’s game on for a second independence referendum

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The SNP had a good conference with Nicola Sturgeon’s speech, containing the obligatory sound bites, enthusing activists. But the question is, where now?

The SNP had a good conference with Nicola Sturgeon’s speech, containing the obligatory sound bites, enthusing activists. But the question is, where now?

Nicola Sturgeon urged SNP supporters to be patient but said their ultimate goal was in sight (Picture: John Devlin)

Nicola Sturgeon urged SNP supporters to be patient but said their ultimate goal was in sight (Picture: John Devlin)

They were lucky with timing, as rumblings within the party were increasing over the Growth Commission report and demands for a second independence referendum. Internal dissent could have overshadowed the conference, but internal party discipline remains strong and outside events conspired to provide a fair wind.

Tory dysfunctionality was laid bare for all to see at their conference a week earlier. The lunacy of Brexit and the price to be paid is becoming more obvious by the day. Independence has to be won but the union’s no longer so safe and secure. Activists know that.

That was followed by Labour where whatever radical agenda Corbyn promoted it was overshadowed by the Scottish wing ruling out a second referendum. It’s not the constitution but public services that are the major concern to the floating SNP/Labour voter. Labour’s parroting of the Conservative and Unionist Party is undemocratic and electorally damaging, but the SNP must have welcomed it all the same.

And then there was the independence rally in Edinburgh, a huge and symbolic event that can’t just be wished away by opponents. Smaller events around the country – akin to some travelling circus – are a distraction from the cause but a major one gives focus and shows strength, not just of feeling but numbers.

In the early 90s, another major rally in Edinburgh followed a fourth Tory victory in the UK but once again defeat in Scotland. Numbers were large then, though less than on this occasion, but it was still the precursor for constitutional change. This march galvanised the cause as well as the conference.

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A major morale boost, it saw activists enter conference on a high. There the First Minister didn’t explicitly rule out an early referendum but the coding couldn’t have been clearer. Her appeal for “Perseverance, Pragmatism and Patience” was a long way from the precipitous call to arms she’d made in spring 2017 and signalled a delay.

The First Minister’s a remarkably able parliamentary tactician but has been a much poorer political strategist. This gathering saw her begin to recognise the reality of the battleground rather than pandering to an adoring audience. It might not have been what some wanted but it was a long overdue recognition that Brexit complicates the independence case and some clarity on it is required.

But, the clock is ticking, not just with Brexit but with the Holyrood election cycle. It’s now half way through the parliamentary session and by the time, as the First Minister said, “the fog clears” it’ll be up against the wire to do anything before May 2021.

Waiting to go again is all that can be done, other than the UK falling apart as it goes over the Brexit cliff. Delay allows for the necessary work to be done, both in Government and at party grassroots level, that’s badly needed and has been lacking so far. The Growth Commission following the national conversation into oblivion.

The major argument for an early date is to avoid a unionist majority in the Scottish Parliament post-2021, making it not possible to call Indyref 2. But the political terrain is unclear and the base hasn’t been built. Support for independence is high but Nicola Sturgeon knows it’s not high enough, the risk of a second and crushing defeat too great.

But, why be so defeatist? Not just the independence vote but the SNP vote is holding up. Brexit, in whatever form, will not be pleasant and the Tories will pay a heavy price for their lethal concoction of incompetence and cruelty – and that’s why she’ll wait.

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Scottish Labour and Liberals are nowhere and becoming irrelevant. It’s already clear that the SNP will win another Holyrood election but can they get another overall or working majority with the Greens? That’s what the strategy has to be, getting a renewed mandate and even the option of an alternative one if another referendum is refused. Referenda remain the preferred course for constitutional issues, but not the only one. Thinking by the likes of Joanna Cherry MP is to be welcomed and the First Minister should widen her limited coterie of advisors. There needs to be more substance not just soundbite.

Changes are required, both in Government and in the party. New thinking and more dynamic action are needed. Announcements at conference on this and that are all very well, but what’s required is getting a grip on public services. They’re not as bad as some paint them but there are real issues. Action not words are needed and some of that will require being bold. The First Minister has been remiss on that to date, preferring to spread the jam thinly rather than make any major policy retreat or major structural change. It’s doubtful that can continue otherwise it’s simply about managing decline.

As Labour has had reviews, consultations and reviews of consultations, the SNP has plans for 2030 and beyond when folk want solutions now, not at a future date in some promised land. Triangulation and reaction to issues as they arise is insufficient. A bolder vison of a better society is needed along with practical implementation of it.

The danger for the SNP lies in a potential failure to get the vote out. Team Sturgeon’s council and Westminster campaigns were a warning of what can happen when the base is demotivated. But, it’s not about shouting independence louder but relating it to issues. The best and most successful SNP campaigns have been on oil, the poll tax, fuel and so on.

Keith Brown’s made a noticeable difference but needs to be able to build on that. The SNP hasn’t adjusted to its increased size whether in campaigning or discipline. It’s not a family business but Scotland’s major political party and should reflect that. HQ is there to support the party, not shamelessly promote the ‘chief executive’s spouse’.

Delay there may be and change there must be, but it’s game on for Indyref 2.