Leader comment: Independence debate needs more reason, less passion

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First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP conference speech showed she realises the need for a grown-up debate about independence in the event of a second referendum – not a repeat of the passion and rancor of the first one.

Nicola Sturgeon’s strong speech to the SNP conference was another demonstration that she is a politician who is head and shoulders above her rivals in Westminster.

FM Nicola Sturgeon at SNP conference. Picture: John Devlin

FM Nicola Sturgeon at SNP conference. Picture: John Devlin

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Of course, not everyone in Scotland will agree with what she had to say or the cause she espoused, but she was calm, measured, funny and coherent.

In Sturgeon, Scotland has a First Minister who is far more capable than the faltering ‘Dancing Queen’ currently occupying 10 Downing Street or those, like Boris Johnson or Jacob Rees-Mogg, who might end up replacing the hapless Theresa May. The surprising thing about May’s party conference speech was that it wasn’t a disaster, but still she was overshadowed by Johnson, a politician whose well-documented use of spin and deception helped persuade a slim majority of people in the UK to vote for Brexit. Many Conservatives appeared all too eager to keep smoking the pipedream and simply ignore the approach of hard reality.

Sturgeon’s key message to SNP supporters with similarly romantic notions was patience. Amny among the party faithful will have been eager for news of a second independence referendum, but the leadership knows it must ignore the cries for freedom and instead wait to see what happens with Brexit. The world could be a very different place in just a few months’ time.

READ MORE: 4 key takeaways from Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP conference speech

So Sturgeon tried to satisfy the SNP troops by talking a lot about independence – without actually firing the starting pistol. And, importantly, she acknowledged that many Scots still need to be persuaded about the benefits of leaving the UK.

She also sought to defend the SNP’s domestic record and, from a centre-left standpoint, did so well enough, although a mere passing mention of education – her priority on becoming First Minister – was an indication of the extent of her Government’s problems with P1 testing, teacher morale and the threat of strike action.

On Brexit, she condemned the UK Government’s “shambolic, chaotic, and utterly incompetent” attempts to negotiate with the EU. And she rightly pointed out the “disgraceful failure of leadership” that means, 838 days after the Brexit referendum and with just 171 to go, “no one has any idea what the UK’s future relationship with the EU will be”.

The debate ahead of the 2016 EU referendum was characterised by too much heat and too little light, just as the 2014 Scottish independence referendum had been before it. So much so, that many people have been put off the idea of referendums entirely.

READ MORE: Nicola Sturgeon: SNP promises ‘hope’ during an ‘unfolding calamity’

If there is to be a second one on Scotland’s future, this time there must be a grown-up debate about issues that could hardly be more serious. People’s livelihoods are at stake, the health, wealth and happiness of all of us in Scotland.

Sturgeon explicitly referenced the passion of the independence supporters who took to the streets of Edinburgh for a controversial demonstration last weekend.

And while she welcomed the display of support – she could hardly do otherwise – she stressed it was the SNP’s job “to take that passion and blend it with pragmatism, perseverance and patience to persuade those not yet persuaded. If we do that, then believe me – the momentum for independence will be unstoppable. So let the passion shine through. But let us always strive to see the argument from the other point of view.”

Voters will not be enlightended by marches, pro-independence Facebook posts and Yes stickers. If the SNP is to achieve its goal, it will only do so as a result of discussion and a reasoned debate.