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Sanjoy Sen is a chemical engineer in North Sea oil. He contested Aberdeen North at the 2015 general election and was a candidate in the Kilburn Ward on Camden in the 2018 London council elections.

Scotland were last at the World Cup in 1998. Whilst the last 20 years will have felt like a very long time for its football supporters, they’ve absolutely flown by for its politicians. When Craig Brown’s men lined up against Brazil in Paris, there wasn’t even a parliament in Edinburgh. Since then, the extent of powers transferred to Holyrood goes well beyond the reach of most people’s imaginations in 1998.

Yet while all this devolution might easily have booted independence into touch, the SNP’s tactics have been pretty much spot-on: demand more powers, get more powers, deride the powers for not going far enough. Repeat. If only the Scottish FA could identify a manager as astute as Alex Salmond.

Fear not: this paragraph marks the end of the tortured football analogies (almost). But, of course, there are both serious and trivial parallels between the beautiful game and the somewhat uglier game of politics. A recent BBC Scotland documentary speculated that the 1979 devolution referendum was impacted by the previous year’s disappointing World Cup campaign. Tongue in cheek, it’s worth noting that thanks to (or despite) Thatcher, the Scots confidently took their place on the world stage in 1982, 1986 and 1990. Even during Major’s Maastricht machinations, they made the 1992 and 1996 European Championships. But, since then, not a sniff of on-field success under New Labour nor the SNP: surely not a coincidence?

But, back to politics, the SNP now has a decade-long Holyrood record to defend and the Scottish Conservatives are making in-roads. And even a mini-revival in Scottish Labour might erode sufficient support to scupper a second referendum. So, with opinion polls still not decisively favouring independence, are we approaching a ‘now or never’ situation for the Nationalists and their hopes of indyref2?

The 2017 General Election caught everyone on the hop, but assembling a campaign around Brexit must have felt like a pretty logical strategy for the SNP given Scotland’s 62 per cent preference for Remain. But, as both the Conservatives and Labour know only too well, parties and their voters don’t cleave neatly along Leave-Remain lines. And so it proved in Scotland.

Many Scottish Remainers turned out to be staunch Unionists who resented any attempt to co-opt their vote into another push for independence. Meanwhile, a small but significant wedge of Nationalists, doubtless enthused by the Norway model, still see little attraction in quitting one union for another. The EU’s less than enthusiastic stance towards Catalonia won’t be helping here.

So, with 21 Westminster seats lost in 2017, Nicola Sturgeon’s recent party conference speech struck a different tone to previous years. Most notably, the party faithful were encouraged not to focus on the “when” of independence. But, given that Sturgeon has been First Minister for four years now and seemingly has no plans for a referendum anytime soon, does this amount to an admission that she believes she can never deliver one?

No such caution is in evidence down at Westminster, though. With Alex Salmond and Angus Robertson now gone, Ian Blackford certainly boosted his profile by leading a mass walk-out over the supposed Westminster ‘power grab’. With thousands of new members said to have joined subsequently, might the party’s centre of gravity be slowly shifting? If so, might they soon be hankering after leadership more committed to an early indyref2?

The SNP may be due a bit of shake-up. Alex Salmond assumed leadership in 1990, so long ago that he even overlapped Margaret Thatcher’s premiership (just). One of the UK’s most effective political operators in recent years, he dominated his party for a generation before handing over un-opposed to his protegé. But if impatience grows and unity becomes strained, others may feel their time has come. Or, to put it another way, after a setback in 2017 the leader finds herself under pressure. And with some in the party sensing their most important issue slipping away, might there soon be a coup? (Who else might I be referring to?)

Waiting for the SNP to possibly burn themselves out might be an attractive option for some. But the case for the union will most likely be decisively won or lost by the economic situation. Pretty much no-one departing the Linwood car plant or the Ravenscraig steelworks for the last time concluded that what they needed next was either a highly-devolved parliament with enhanced tax-raising powers or even independence: what they wanted was another job. This issue is particularly pertinent to the Conservatives with the demise of the Govan shipyards (and the like) still firmly laid at Thatcher’s door with the impact of cut-throat global competition disregarded. With my own background in energy, I’d be keen to see the UK, especially Scotland, at the heart of the energy transition and the hydrogen economy.

But, returning to football, with Scotland sitting out the World Cup, fans north of the border will be counting down the days until the resumption of club fixtures in July. In particular, Aberdeen supporters will be relishing the fact that the trans-continental Europa League draw has presented the Dons with a ‘Battle of Britain’ tie against Burnley. Be warned: with Aberdeen (one of the UK’s most prosperous cities) having voted 61 per cent Remain and Burnley (one of the most deprived) voting 67 per cent Leave, there won’t be any shortage of pundits looking for any excuse to draw parallels.

44 comments for: Sanjoy Sen: For how long will the SNP stick with struggling Sturgeon?

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