At the beginning of next week, the grind of the annual UK conference season will finally come to an end when Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, takes the stage at the SNP conference in Glasgow.
Her speech – the climax and highlight of the three day event – will be planned with the usual military precision. Regal waves of her arm will greet her adoring audience and a phalanx of photographers. Sound, light, slogans and images will be perfect.
Sturgeon’s husband, party Chief Executive Peter Murrell, will flutter animatedly in the wings. Emergency cough lozenges will be nearby. The letters on the front of the podium will most assuredly not fall off halfway through the Great Address.
Yet all the theatre, the careful management and the inevitable standing ovation and noisy cheering cannot hide the stark fact that the SNP’s political gloss is currently tarnished. Like her great adversary Theresa May, Sturgeon’s ride this year has been a pretty bumpy one.
Poor political judgment, a sense of stasis, loss of control of events and a massively disappointing general election result have left the SNP weakened, the First Minister’s own status diminished and the nationalists’ central policy of independence off the table for the foreseeable future.
If Sturgeon is to repair her punctured reputation, she will have to rouse the faithful while simultaneously tiptoeing a tightrope, balancing the emotional demands of the SNP’s combustible and uncompromising nationalist membership with the realistic recognition that the heady days of the 2014 independence referendum are – at least temporarily – over.
The path she chooses to take has powerful reference points for Northern Ireland. While politics on each side of the North Channel is markedly different, there has been a profound and growing worry among unionists here that an independent Scotland would be, as the loyalists so often refer to it , the thin edge of the wedge.
Irish nationalists and republicans are, of course, more sanguine about Scottish independence – enthusiastic, even. The polities of Edinburgh and Dublin are similar, and Sturgeon has become something of a regular visitor of late to the Irish capital, where she is well-regarded. Indeed she was there again, speaking to the Dublin Chamber of Commerce, this week.
Scottish independence would massively destabilise the existing UK constitutional settlement, splintering the state, throwing the rump of the union into crisis and emboldening Irish nationalism probably more than any political event since partition.
Were that to happen, Northern Ireland may consider its own options. Old loyalist assumptions about safety in togetherness will come under serious review. To the south, the Republic is the most prosperous and fastest growing country in Europe. To the east will be a newly energised independent Scotland plus a sclerotic, Brexited England and Wales. Everything will be changed, changed utterly.
For now, though, that scenario is not on either the Scottish or the Irish table. Sturgeon has admitted as much: after saying earlier this year that a second independence referendum campaign could be launched as early as autumn 2018, she has now admitted that she has no particular timescale in mind.
The reason for this Damascene conversion? It’s the voters, stupid. After virtually sweeping the board at the 2015 General Election, winning 56 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats, the SNP then lost 21 of them again when Theresa May went to the country this May.
Casualties included former First Minister Alex Salmond and the party’s Westminster leader Angus Robertson, who both lost their seats. By contrast, the Tories – for decades regarded as toxic and unelectable in Scotland – went from one MP to 13.
This unexpected and dramatic reversal happened largely because the electorate wanted to send a firm message to Sturgeon and her government that they had no appetite at present for another independence vote. Worn down by parliamentary elections, the Brexit poll and the deeply divided country created by the 2014 referendum, they just wanted a bit of time in the recovery ward.
Yet those in Northern Ireland and elsewhere who think that the union is now saved and secure may wish to give themselves a restorative whiff of smelling salts. Reality just isn’t that straightforward. The notion of an independent Scotland may currently be sleeping, but it is very far from dead.
Politics, like the global economy, moves in waves. Independence for Scotland may not dominate the political landscape as it did a couple of years ago, but the demand for it hasn’t gone away. Opinion polls show support still stands at around 45 per cent – the same healthy figure achieved by the Yes (to independence) side in 2014.
The losses in this year’s General Election were undoubtedly disappointing and damaging for the party, but they do need to be set in context. The SNP still won the majority of the seats in Scotland and also the majority of the vote. They remain the overwhelming political force in the country and there is little sign this is set to change.
Sturgeon has recognised that her government needs to concentrate more on its domestic agenda, where it has been accused of a lack of policy and imagination. There are now signs that this is happening through a gentle but perceptible shift to the left, including more support for public services, a doubling of childcare and ambitious climate change targets. Even the possibility of income tax rises is not being dismissed.
This week, she also announced an indefinite ban on fracking in Scotland – a hugely popular move which will help endear her to SNP conference delegates next week. Unlike the Tories and Labour, she and her leadership colleagues are unlikely to be troubled by any meaningful dissent from their 118,000 strong membership.
If the First Minister and her Cabinet can restore their government’s reputation among the wider electorate reputation by displaying competence, ideas and confidence on the home front, then by a process of osmosis, independence may well find its way back onto the agenda.
Perhaps the biggest driver of all, though, is likely to be Brexit. Like Northern Ireland, Scotland voted to stay in Europe, though by a bigger margin: 62 per cent Remain to 38 per cent Leave. The SNP is an enthusiastically Europhile party and Sturgeon thought that this strong validation of EU membership would immediately translate into a boost in support for independence.
She miscalculated badly: the opposite happened. As people worried about the future and leaving the EU, they retreated into the old assumptions and hesitancy. But in the longer term, Sturgeon may be proven right. Brexit is still mostly confusion and bluster. No-one, least of all the UK Government, knows what will actually happen.
The current surreal phony war can only last so long. Real damage – a collapsed UK economy and pound, massive job losses, loss of personal freedom and benefits, the end of international influence, and so on – is almost certainly coming if the Tories (and to an extent Labour) continue on their present disastrous course.
When the shrapnel starts bursting and the cordite drifts across the Brexit battlefield – that is the moment Scots will have to make their choice and they have a way out of this shambles. Unimpeded by the complexities of Northern Ireland’s historic tribalism and its often enslaving history, this time they may seize the day and take it.
As is traditional, the SNP conference will end next Tuesday with a rousing rendition of Robert Burn’s Scots Wha Hae, which harks back romantically to the country’s medieval Wars of Independence with the line: “Welcome to your gory bed….or to victory.”
That is the choice Nicola Sturgeon faces but with skill, resolution and the tailwind of history, she may yet achieve the success the SNP craves.
To the winner, the spoils. Or to reflect on the wisdom of Scotland’s national poet again: “It’s comin’ yet, for a’ that.”
Andrew Collier is a writer, commentator and broadcaster who has recently moved from Scotland to Northern Ireland. He is a former media consultant to the SNP and a speechwriter for Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon.