Leader comment: Wishart's call for indref2 delay reflects reality for SNP

If it's unusual for a senior SNP politician to break ranks and challenge the thinking of the party leader, it's even more surprising when the issue at stake is the party's core policy, independence.

Demand still exists for a second independence referendum, but the mandate held by the SNP was undermined by this year's general election.

Pete Wishart, the Nationalists’ longest-serving MP, has taken the bull by the horns after months of vague talk from Nicola Sturgeon, and stated that there should be no second independence referendum before the next Holyrood elections.

Mr Wishart can be an outspoken individual, and is no stranger to robust exchanges on Twitter, but here he speaks common sense which many will agree with. The First Minister has moved her timetable for a second referendum, but has not pinpointed when it would be, citing approximate time periods instead, and referring to the right to give Scots a choice when a Brexit deal is implemented.

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The reality is that at present, there is not a strong enough appetite for independence, and nor is there sufficient demand for a referendum, even though a mandate exists to hold such a vote.

In addition, it is questionable if that mandate – earned in 2016 – would survive if a Holyrood election was held tomorrow, given the losses suffered by the SNP at this year’s general election. Mr Wishart, of course, is acutely aware of the damage done that night, having held on to his Perth and North Perthshire seat by just 21 votes after his 9,600 majority melted away.

Mr Wishart believes that his party should wait until the full effects of Brexit are felt, which he estimates will be clearer after 2021, when the next Scottish Parliament election is scheduled to take place. He might be right, and then again, it is possible we will find that the effects of Brexit are not as grim as some forecast. Time will tell.

The gamble he is willing to take is that the Nationalists will still be able to call a referendum after the 2021 Holyrood election. Without that mandate, any theoretical spike in demand for independence post-Brexit cannot be acted upon.

But here, the SNP would need to have the courage of its convictions. It should not rush a referendum just because the chance may be lost at the next election. To trigger a referendum, it has to be sure that the public wants one. The only credible method of demonstrating that such demand exists is to wait until the next election. Or, as Mr Wishart puts it, a time when the SNP has “an unquestionable mandate”. At present, it doesn’t.