Ignore the Freedom Square stalwarts… a second Indyref is no longer inevitable

THREE years ago today, I was in Glasgow city centre as news arrived that Scotland had voted No.

I wrote then of the sagging Saltires in George Square, and the atmosphere of dejection by 5.30 am, similar to the ‘fag-end of a student party’.

Before the referendum, many Yes supporters had crammed into the same space for a premature celebration – unaware they stood on the edge of defeat.

George Square – or ‘Freedom Square’ as they call it – has remained a key meeting-point for the pro-independence movement.

This weekend there was a Yes anniversary party, but it was all a far cry from the carnival feel of those heady days in the run-up to September 18, 2014.

Presided over by Tommy Sheridan – the convicted perjurer and former Scottish Socialist MSP – it mustered a comparatively measly crowd of around 1,500, according to Police Scotland estimates.

It is easy to forget just how febrile those days back in September 2014 were, though luckily fears of civil unrest following a No vote proved unfounded.

True, there were ugly scenes in George Square on the night after the referendum, but we were mercifully spared the violence that followed Quebec’s knife-edge poll in 1995.

The independence movement in the predominantly French-speaking Canadian province was defeated by just over 1 per cent and months of tension spilt onto the streets of Montreal – a government building was set on fire and flags were trampled into the ground by mobs of protesters.

Yet Nicola Sturgeon may prefer us to forget, amid all the talk of what a splendid democratic exercise the Scottish referendum was, the online thuggery; the mass rally against supposed anti-SNP bias at BBC Scotland’s HQ; the families and friendships that have never fully recovered.

It was a painful and alienating process that left many thousands of us feeling like strangers in our own country.

I remember having a drink with a Unionist friend on the night of September 19, and our mood was one of relief more than jubilation.

There was also a widespread recognition that it would be counterproductive to gloat about the success of the No camp at a time when the nation was so deeply divided.

For that reason, the hearts of most Unionists sank when David Cameron gave his speech on the morning after the vote, and immediately raised the prospect of ‘English votes for English laws’.

It was a sop to those within his own party who felt the referendum process would stoke English nationalism.

That ill-advised move convinced Mr Salmond that he should quit, because he instantly knew that the SNP would prosper at the following year’s General Election.

He reckoned that his continued leadership of the party would prove a major impediment for the woman who would succeed him, so he stepped down.

Sure enough, the SNP secured a record number of MPs in the 2015 Westminster poll.

We might wonder if Mr Salmond, had he remained First Minister, would have made quite the mess of things that Nicola Sturgeon has, by overestimating the extent of Scotland’s attachment to the EU – and threatening another referendum on almost daily basis.

But it would have been hard for him to remain in office after guiding the Yes movement to defeat.

One of his final acts as First Minister was to bar certain journalists – including a Mail reporter – from his Bute House Press conference on the day after the referendum, in a fit of juvenile pique.

But back in the autumn of 2014, there was a feeling among many Unionists that the threat of independence had not vanished, merely receded, and would come back to life like the monster at the end of a horror film.

There was a fatalistic expectation that Yessers would regroup – and it was only a matter of time before they would win.

Remarkably, it was only six months ago that Miss Sturgeon proclaimed there would be another referendum (as if gaining permission from Westminster to hold one was a minor administrative inconvenience).

I attended a rally in Glasgow for the ‘Scotland in Union’ campaign group after her announcement, where activists spoke of the urgent need to reactivate the No movement; there was no time to spare.

Miss Sturgeon wrongly gambled that the strength of anti-Brexit sentiment was so overwhelming that there would be popular backing for more constitutional upheaval, and made plans for ‘indyref2’ in the autumn of next year, or by Spring 2019.

If that timetable had remained in place, we would now be preparing for another referendum, against the backdrop of the Brexit negotiations.

But the disastrous General Election result in June, when the SNP lost nearly 40 per cent of its MPs, put the brakes on that initiative in spectacular style.

It has left Miss Sturgeon a much-weakened figure, constantly on the back foot over her party’s appalling stewardship of public services.

That sense of inevitability – that indyref2 was unavoidable and that it was only a matter of time before independence followed – has now evaporated.

The latest Panelbase poll stands at 43 per cent in favour of independence (down from 45 per cent in the 2014 referendum), with opposition on 57 per cent, up two per cent on the referendum result.

At a summit last month, grassroots independence supporters who met Miss Sturgeon, and hoped she would give them cash and backing to get started on campaigning for indyref2, left disappointed.

One source close to those talks told me: ‘I get the feeling that the SNP has internal issues that are going to have to play out.’

SNP membership is in decline and Miss Sturgeon’s administration has never looked more bereft of the dynamism and vision that the country so clearly needs.

That doesn’t mean indyref2 will never happen, but it certainly no longer feels inevitable – and the best antidote to further agitation for the break-up of Britain is Brexit.

If it brings an economic downturn – and I believe it won’t – then Scottish independence will be a gamble too far for most Scots; if it doesn’t, and Brexit is a success, the argument for separatism will crumble.

It is also crucial that the Tories ensure Holyrood receives new powers as a result of EU withdrawal, proving the SNP’s warnings that they are intent on undermining the Scottish parliament nothing more than paranoid hysteria (and a cynical bid to bolster support for indyref2).

But the greatest lesson of 2014 is that Scots are sick of politicians playing needless games with their lives, tearing friendships and families apart – and want them to get back to governing.

Home Affairs Editor, columnist, leader writer, Scottish Daily Mail. Twitter: @GrahamGGrant Facebook: @sdmnewspaper