Nicola Sturgeon needs to 'move’ on referendum as veteran nationalists attack John Swinney’s SNP conference address

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon will have to “start to move” on the issue of independence if she wants to hold a referendum by 2023, with “no way” she can face the electorate in 2026 without having first attempted to put the issue to the public, according to one of Scotland’s leading political experts.

Sir John Curtice said SNP supporters were probably willing to accept the coronavirus pandemic remained the “priority,” but stressed Sturgeon “has to deliver at some point in the next five years”.

With the SNP leader set to address her party’s conference tomorrow, questions are mounting around its approach to the constitutional issue which continues to dominate Scottish politics.

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In a speech designed to assuage those pushing for independence, deputy first minister John Swinney told the conference on Saturday he too was “impatient” and urged supporters to “stay the course”, insisting the case for an independent Scotland “grows ever stronger by the day”.

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However, veteran nationalists criticised his address. Alex Neil, the former SNP cabinet minister, said there was “no sign” of original thinking around the pro-independence cause, and urged the party to seek a mandate for independence at the next UK general election.

Jim Sillars, the former depute leader of the SNP, said there was “nothing of substance” in Mr Swinney’s speech, and delivered a withering verdict. “John could not set the political heather on fire with a can of petrol and a lighted torch,” he said.

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In a speech which revisited familiar political ground, with repeated attacks on the UK government over its attempts to “hollow out” devolution, Mr Swinney said the UK government had shown “contempt for Scottish democratic wishes” and “contempt for Scotland’s democratic parliament”.

He accused it of “working almost under the radar with a very clear political objective” to undermine devolution, describing it as “a concerted attack” on Holyrood by “the very people who fought tooth and nail against it being established in the first place”.

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Deputy First Minister John Swinney told the SNP conference to "stand up and be counted before it's too late" to defend devolution. Picture: Fraser Bremner/Daily Mail/PA Wire

The Internal Market Bill, he went on, gave the Conservatives “unfettered power to decide the rules of the internal market, and to completely ignore the devolution settlement if they want to”.

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He said: “For those of you who are impatient for independence, I know how you feel. So am I. But I also take heart from just how far we have come as a movement.

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“Our movement is growing and the case for independence grows ever stronger by the day. We are here to stay, and in the end, if we stay the course, we will win.”

His speech came after a YouGov poll for The Times last week found that 68 per cent of people were opposed to a referendum in the next 12 months, compared to 21 per cent in favour. Some 46 per cent of those polled said they wanted a referendum to be held in the next five years, with 41 per cent against.

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Mr Curtice, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde, described Mr Swinney’s speech as “pretty standard” with “nothing original”, and predicted Sturgeon would have major decisions to make over the next year.

"Once the pandemic is over, and everybody agrees it is over, we’re into a new game," he told Scotland on Sunday. “If indeed she’s going to give some intimation that she’s going to attempt to hold a referendum by 2023, some move has to be made sometime next year.

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“She has to deliver at some point in the next five years. There is no way that she can face the electorate in 2026 without having tried to hold a referendum, because virtually everybody who voted for is in favour of independence, and virtually of them want another referendum within five years.”

Mr Neill, the former SNP MSP, cautioned that simply repeating the need for independence would do little to advance the cause, and warned not enough groundwork was being done to convince the electorate.

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“It’s not enough just to shout ‘independence, independence, independence’, we’ve got to put flesh on the bones of the argument,” he reasoned. “That means spelling out in detail the answers to questions on currency, economic policy, the oil and gas industry, and our trading relationships. It’s not just a case of updating the white paper. It needs to be completely rewritten.

“My concern at the moment is that there is no sign of that hard work and original thinking being done, despite the fact we need to do that to have any chance of success next time round.”

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Mr Neil, who served in both Alex Salmond and Ms Sturgeon's governments, said the party should pursue an “alternative strategy” for independence if the UK government continues to refuse a Section 30 order, insisting the next general election should be a referendum on the issue, with the SNP obtaining a “mandate for independence” if it wins a majority of votes and seats.

Mr Swinney's comments were dismissed by a UK government spokeswoman as “simply nonsense”. She added: The Internal Market Bill ensures vital trade can continue seamlessly between all four corners of the UK.”

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Jamie Halcro Johnston MSP, the Scottish Conservatives’ shadow business minister, said: “The SNP don’t want devolution to work. They want it to fail so they can keep obsessively pushing independence.

“It’s the SNP who threaten devolution by failing to use the powers they have and delivering only increasing levels of deflective nationalist grievance.”

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Mr Swinney’s remarks also sparked unrest among hardline independence supporters.

The Alba Party MP, Neale Hanvey, who left the SNP in March, accused him of playing a “nonsense game of acquiescence” with the Conservatives, and said the only way to “defend devolution” was via full independence.

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“If a referendum is not going to be delivered by the first minister, we need a fresh approach and a fresh team of parliamentarians who’ll act,” he said.

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