Tommy Sheppard said there has been no appetite for a swift indyref2 among the thousands of party members he has come into contact with while campaigning to become Nicola Sturgeon’s number two.
Speaking ahead of this week’s SNP conference in Glasgow, the Edinburgh East MP said there is no room for independence “vanity projects” and the case for breaking up the UK has to be “tested to destruction” before another vote is called.
The message Sheppard has received from SNP activists contrasts with the approach being advocated by Alex Salmond, who has predicted a second poll by autumn 2018 and has suggested that Sturgeon need not wait until support for a Yes vote has risen in the polls.
Sturgeon is preparing a draft Referendum Bill that can be implemented immediately if she concludes that having another shot at independence is the best way to protect Scotland’s interests against Brexit.
Prime Minister Theresa May has announced that Article 50 – the formal mechanism for the Brexit process – will be activated by the end of March next year.
The First Minister believes independence is one of the options that needs to be explored in order to maintain Scotland’s relationship with the European Union and is consulting on legislation that could be triggered by Brexit.
But yesterday Sheppard warned that the SNP membership were against that approach. “The SNP has a mandate which it got in May this year at least to consider an early independence referendum in very particular circumstances, and pretty much those circumstances relate to Brexit,” said Sheppard.
“So the only basis we can have an early referendum - before 2020 - would be if we link it to what’s happening with Brexit. As we have been conducting this campaign I have been coming across a lot of concern within the party about that proposition – about linking the two together.”
Sheppard is regarded as the most likely candidate to mount a serious challenge to Angus Robertson, the SNP Westminster leader who is regarded as the favourite in the four-horse depute leadership race. With membership of the SNP surging to more than 120,000 in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, Sheppard believes he has a “good chance” of causing a surprise. In the past few weeks, Sheppard estimated that he had reached between 3,500 and 4,000 of those members.
“These are the people who are the most animated about this [Scottish independence], but I have not actually heard anyone say ‘I’m going to vote for the candidate with the earliest referendum date’.
“Everyone has couched it in much more nuanced terms. They have all asked what would need to happen for us? How do we win? What might the next step be? There is no drive amongst the activist corps for saying let’s rush into something. There is a degree of thoughtfulness which is remarkable.”
He added: “I think it is because everyone is so aware that if we get another chance for this it will be our last and we have to get it right. There is no room for vanity projects. No room for mistakes. Everything has to be thought through and tested to destruction and put back together. Not until all of that has been done do we go forward on this.”
Sheppard’s approach was echoed by SNP MEP Alyn Smith, who with Inverclyde councillor Chris McEleny and Robertson make up the quartet of challengers attempting to replace Stewart Hosie as depute leader.
Hosie resigned after it emerged he was having a relationship with journalist Serena Cowdy – a revelation which also led to him splitting with his wife, health secretary Shona Robison.
Smith said: “There is a ruthless pragmatism among the membership, where everybody is united that we want to see an independent Scotland, but everyone is equally united that we don’t want to lose another independence referendum.
“The ‘let’s go for it now’ attitude is out there, absolutely, and I share it, I want to see us go for this at the best opportunity, but the situation we are in now was objectively not of our making, and has thrown a vast amount of issues into flux, and we need to keep our powder dry until we’re confident we have the case and we have the timing. Within the membership I very much sense there’s a real pragmatism on this.”
On the linking of indyref2 to the Brexit negotiations, Smith added: “I don’t think for a second that’s actually going to be the timetable. Let’s keep our powder dry. I don’t think we’re there yet, and I don’t think we want anybody else’s timetable to set ours.”
Voting in the contest closes on Wednesday and the winner will be unveiled on Thursday on the first day of the SNP conference, expected to attract 3,000 members. As he contemplated the week ahead, Robertson said more clarity on the timing of indyref2 would have to wait until Sturgeon’s Brexit expert commission has reported back.
“I’m going to stick with the timetable the First Minister has set, which is we go through the options, we do that methodically, and we do it on the basis of the best advice that is there. But the Article 50 process has a timetable that is limited and I certainly don’t want to see Scotland outside the EU.”
Tory chief whip John Lamont said: “With Alex Salmond calling for a second referendum in 2018, these comments seem at odds with what we are hearing from others in the SNP hierarchy. The last thing Scotland needs is another divisive debate on independence and the sooner the SNP realise this the better.”