Ian Swanson: Who will be steering the drive for independence?

Alan Cumming and Nicola Sturgeon at a flash mob. Picture Robert Perry
Alan Cumming and Nicola Sturgeon at a flash mob. Picture Robert Perry
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DOUBTS have been raised over the SNP’s plans for a summer initiative to promote the case for independence.

Nicola Sturgeon announced the move at the party’s spring conference back in March.

But according to reports, the SNP’s national executive committee last weekend heard there was still no definite start date and limited detail on what it will involve.

Some people, weary of the succession of elections and referendums in recent years, might breathe a sigh of relief at the thought they could be spared another round of political campaigning.

But if the SNP doesn’t launch its initiative soon, other Yes campaigners look likely to act anyway.

Grassroots activists are said to have been re-energised by the Brexit vote and “champing at the bit” to get going again.

That could spell problems for the SNP, however. Ms Sturgeon has been careful to couch her talk about the possibility of another referendum and case for independence in the most 
diplomatic terms.

When she announced the summer initiative, she spelled out what the tone of it should be: “It will not be an attempt to browbeat anyone.

“Many wanted to be persuaded in 2014 – but ultimately didn’t find our arguments compelling enough. So we will listen to what you have to say. We will hear your concerns and address your questions – and in the process, we will be prepared to challenge some of our own answers.

“And, patiently and respectfully, we will seek to convince you that independence really does offer the best future for Scotland.”

The problem for the SNP is that if Ms Sturgeon and her colleagues are not leading the campaign, there is a danger the message will be less conciliatory, more abrasive and in the end fail to persuade.

Whereas Ms Sturgeon frankly acknowledges the need to revisit some of the arguments made the last time and come up with better ones, some less reflective Yes supporters might be tempted simply to replay the Greatest Hits from their 2014 campaign.

And that could risk alienating rather than converting the No voters they need to win next time.

The comments by actor Alan Cumming at the weekend, blaming “stupid English people” for the Brexit vote – although he has since apologised for any offence caused – are a timely reminder of how easily the argument can turn abusive.

The SNP initiative was to have been led by deputy leader Stewart Hosie, but he is now standing down after a sex scandal and a new deputy will not be elected until the annual conference in October.

A summer initiative cannot wait for that process to be completed. But it is worth noting that Edinburgh East MP Tommy Sheppard, who is one of four candidates for the post, believes the role should be all about galvanising the membership for a possible second referendum.

Like Ms Sturgeon he recognises the need to approach voters in a constructive and conciliatory way.

“The SNP needs to play this in a very respectful and inclusive way,” he says. “None of us is saying we told you so and we’re not saying you have to join us. I’m saying come and have a discussion, be part of a dialogue.”

Perhaps the SNP does need a little more time to recalibrate its arguments for independence in the light of the EU referendum. But if it is going to make sure the tenor of the campaign is right, it cannot delay too long.