This week, the Scottish National Party is holding its annual conference, and if the newspapers are any indication then the strategic challenges facing the Nationalists are beginning to take shape.
According to this morning’s Times (£), the leadership faces a “Momentum-style revolt”, with a so-called ‘radical independence’ group organising a parallel event, whilst the Financial Times reports that a split over independence is threatening party unity.
Before that, a former member of Alex Salmond’s cabinets warned Nicola Sturgeon that she risks making the same mistakes as Scottish Labour, governing timidly and thus failing to tackle Scotland’s problems, particularly in education.
Between them, these stories neatly illustrate the tricky strategic position of Scotland’s dominant political party, caught between a membership chomping at the bit for a second referendum and an electorate who stubbornly refuse to swing towards separation.
In some ways, the SNP is very much like a sort of political shark: formidable at what it does, but completely dependent on continuous forward movement.
Back in August, I compared the Scottish Nationalists to UKIP. Where the latter have fallen apart after getting what they wanted, defeat has only forged the former into a more effective campaigning machine.
Looking at the impact of Nigel Farage’s latest resignation, I suggested that phalanx-style discipline under a very strong leadership might be the best, possibly the only, way to run a separatist nationalist party.
The SNP maintains a level of internal discipline which is quite extraordinary, and completely at odds with the British tradition of the broad church. The Party’s elected representatives are forbidden from criticising it or its policies (which has crippled Holyrood’s committee system), and its members are expected to bite their tongues on policy differences in service to the higher cause.
But this level of control relies on the constant impression that battle is imminent, that the next heave is just around the corner and the faithful must maintain themselves at peak battle readiness.
If the prospect of independence retreats into the middle distance, the SNP political model starts coming off the rails because the focus of politics shifts to normal government, and the endless succession of potentially divisive choices this forces on the party in power.
The hypertrophied Nationalist activist base is not united by much beyond independence – and its newly-swollen ranks now contain huge numbers of idealists brought in by the referendum who haven’t spent decades as loyal Party cadres and are proving less willing to offer the leadership their unquestioning support.
Similar problems arise with the SNP’s improbably broad electoral coalition, which is united not by independence but by the belief that the party offers the best mixture of competence and Scottishness of the options available. The timidity that Kenny MacAskill so criticises in Sturgeon stems from the challenge of keeping such disparate voters happy.
Yet the Nationalists’ electoral dominance means that they can’t avoid these decisions forever. Just this week we have stories highlighting the challenges they face on the economy, on transport, on healthcare, and on agriculture.
Brexit initially seemed to offer the SNP an out by giving them an excuse to put separation back on the agenda, and Sturgeon seized it with both hands the morning after the vote. But that is increasingly looking like a precipitous move: contrary to much received opinion, but as predicted on this site, Brexit has not led to any surge in support for independence.
So the First Minister has let her activists catch the scent of blood, but now faces the prospect of what would likely prove an extremely damaging second defeat if she managed to hold a second referendum.
Ruth Davidson’s taking second place in May’s Scottish elections has also changed the dynamic on these issues: by championing the EU and independence, the SNP are pushing a big chunk of their voters not towards the fringes but directly towards the Opposition.
Some of the Nationalists’ strongest areas, such as the North East, are a legacy of it being the viable alternative to Labour for Scotland’s very-much-existing right-leaning electorate.
If the Daily Express is correct and Sturgeon hopes to force an election on the issue of a new independence referendum, it would seem to run the serious risk of giving the Tories a golden opportunity to win over risk-averse, anti-independence, and even anti-EU voters. It’s difficult to see where compensating new separatist votes are going to come from.
All of this is exacerbated by the strict timetable imposed by the Brexit process: experts are already warning that the SNP might be running out of time to hold a referendum before Britain leaves the EU.
One potential out, and the one that Sturgeon seems to be tilting towards, is putting on a lot of front and trying to wring more powers for Holyrood out of the Brexit negotiations, giving her the opportunity to wriggle out of a second referendum with a ‘win’ for Scotland – or at least for Scottish politicians.
But Theresa May looks like she’s shaping up to be a gritter opponent than David Cameron was. The former Home Secretary got to witness the latter’s missteps first-hand, and looks much less inclined to give the Nationalists an easy ride on the holding, timing, or phrasing of a second vote – which must, despite Sturgeon’s proposed law, be secured after negotiations with Westminster.
There’s no reason that some powers currently exercised by the EU shouldn’t be passed to Holyrood. But the Prime Minister must be careful not to make the classic unionist mistake of being so fearful of the threat of battle that she makes too many concessions. Her coming face-off with the First Minister will be the real test of May’s unionist mettle.
But if Sturgeon does get the powers she wants and averts another referendum in the short term, the SNP is left face to face with the challenge of governing Scotland, disappointing and dividing its supporters and perhaps putting that second vote farther out of reach than ever.