When even the Bravehearts stay at home, there’s something very wrong in the SNP
THERE was a time when the exact numbers turning out at pro-independence rallies were a matter of fierce debate.
Some participants would chastise the BBC for failing to give them enough coverage, or underestimating attendance.
It became so contentious that police stopped providing figures on the size of crowds — because they didn’t want to stoke controversy.
No more: take a look at some of the images from the All Under One Banner group’s ‘static rally’ in Dundee on Saturday — it wasn’t exactly mobbed.
Were it not for coronavirus restrictions, it’s conceivable all of those present could have fitted comfortably into a phone box, with room to spare.
Mind you, not everyone agreed: one attendee, Cameron Archibald, was uninspired, tweeting that it was a ‘such a disaster’, and most speeches were ‘about Thatcher’.
Hardly an auspicious backdrop for the news yesterday that Nicola Sturgeon intends to re-launch her party’s independence campaign at the SNP conference next month.
A draft agenda shows members will be asked to endorse proposals for a new independence push — in which Scots will be told separation is ‘essential’ to the country’s recovery from Covid.
Meanwhile, a separate motion states that legislation for a second referendum should be introduced at Holyrood ‘at the earliest moment’ after a ‘clear end’ to the current public health crisis.
That provides a bit of latitude: after all, getting back to normal after the pandemic won’t happen overnight.
How popular would this new bout of constitutional agitation be in the midst of soaring NHS waiting lists, and longer dole queues?
There’s also another public health crisis, revealed in chilling figures last week which showed that Scotland continues to top the EU’s drug deaths league table.
It doesn’t look like there’s any intention to hold off on the latest independence crusade until that emergency is over, but then it’s been getting steadily worse for years and Miss Sturgeon can’t hang around for ever.
The Dundee rally doesn’t prove necessarily that we’ve reached ‘peak Nat’ — but it shows the steam is rapidly running out of the movement before its revamped bid for another referendum has even begun.
Miss Sturgeon hasn’t mentioned independence — at least not in much depth — since the election, when she failed to secure the majority that would have allowed her to bang on about it a lot more.
In a recent Twitter exchange, Glasgow East MP David Linden, the SNP’s work and pensions spokesman, was asked about the party’s proposals on currency for an independent Scotland.
With some candour, he replied: ‘No. In short, I think a lot is still up for discussion and all ideas are welcome in terms of economic modelling.’
It was a short but telling statement proving that seven years after their first tilt at tearing Scotland out of the UK, the Nationalists aren’t exactly tripping over brilliant ideas.
On Sunday, Mike Russell, former ‘Brexit Minister’ and now political director of the ‘independence unit’ at SNP HQ, criticised The Spectator for suggesting that with no currency or central bank an independent Scotland would have to slash public spending.
Mr Russell’s considered response was to brand the article ‘London-centric scaremongering with no grounding in the reality of small nations in the third decade of the 21st century’.
Not much of a detailed rebuttal, but then the only hope the SNP has of making anyone buy into its policy vacuum is to steer them away from asking uncomfortable questions about the nuts and bolts.
Last year independence was riding high in the polls, with support well over 50 per cent — but now it’s slumped again.
A Panelbase poll in June showed the pro-separation vote was around 48 per cent, excluding ‘don’t knows’ — the lowest level for two years.
That’s why Michael Gove is happy to concede another referendum would be permitted if there was evidence of a ‘settled will’ for independence — he knows there isn’t.
At the height of lockdown, a referendum must have seemed a remote possibility to many — and maybe they backed independence on that basis.
Sitting in your living room for months on end, you might well have thought that anything was better than the status quo.
When restrictions eased, people changed their minds, realising the scale of the Covid recovery challenge.
And they knew their jobs had been saved by the furlough scheme operated by the UK Government, which also masterminded the vaccine drive.
The response from the SNP is to complain about furlough being wound down, and to point out that, well, at least Miss Sturgeon isn’t Boris Johnson.
Fair enough, but most voters are smart enough to know that he won’t be around for ever, and choosing your country’s constitutional future based on your dislike of a politician is somewhere beyond barmy.
As for the grassroots activists within the SNP, they’re fed up with the only cause that matters to them being put on the backburner.
They’ve doubted the First Minister’s ability to turn things around for a while, and the police probe of the party’s finances hasn’t helped.
It’s still ongoing — but the allegations are serious.
SNP chief executive Peter Murrell is under pressure — and, if he goes, would Miss Sturgeon be able to stay in post much longer?
There is no suggestion that the First Minister is accused of any financial wrong-doing.
But she and her husband come as part of a package — and some of her critics believe it wouldn’t take much for the house of cards to come tumbling down.
Salmondgate may be ancient history but it must have weakened Miss Sturgeon’s credibility among sections of the support base.
Every minute she spent trying to save her own skin meant she wasn’t focusing on independence — and for the hard core that matters far more than sorting out Covid.
The party is at war with itself and has been for ages — some diehards left the fold long ago (hence those risible scenes in Dundee the other day), and a very small number opted for Alex Salmond’s Alba Party in May.
Mr Russell has nothing but bluster to offer, and — like his bosses — he knows they won’t get the green light for a referendum, meaning they’d need to spend a lot of time in courtrooms trying to make it happen through the back door.
And they’ve got nothing much to sell anyway, apart from the message that it’s time to free ourselves from the chains of an oppressive UK state which saved your life, and possibly your business.
Let’s face it, when the zealots who normally pound the streets of town and city centres on Saturday afternoons would rather stay at home, it’s obvious that something fundamental has changed.
The SNP is an ill-equipped army preparing itself for a battle it knows it must fight, but is destined to lose — and it seems its footsoldiers may be deserting in their droves.
*This column appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on August 3, 2021.
*Follow me on Twitter: @GrahamGGrant