Ian Swanson: Sturgeon keeps Indyref2 starting gun in its holster

Delegates in upbeat mood at the SNP conference. Picture: SWNS
Delegates in upbeat mood at the SNP conference. Picture: SWNS
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NICOLA Sturgeon will not be using her closing ­address to the SNP conference this afternoon to fire the starting gun for another independence referendum.

Many of the activists gathered at the Scottish Event Campus in Glasgow and most of those who took part in the huge pro-independence march through Edinburgh on Saturday might wish it was otherwise.

But the First Minister’s natural – and sensible – caution has combined with political reality to rule out any immediate bid to hold a fresh vote.

The Nationalists are taking heart from opinion polls at the weekend which showed growing support for independence. One survey found as many as 52 per cent would vote Yes for an independent Scotland if the UK crashes out of the EU with no deal.

But even such encouraging polls are not yet enough to suggest ­victory is guaranteed. If more people are looking seriously at independence in a positive way, the last thing the SNP wants to do is call a vote too early, lose again and have the issue taken off the agenda for the foreseeable future.

Even if Ms Sturgeon was tempted to take the risk, there is little chance that Theresa May would agree the necessary Section 30 order to give the Scottish Parliament the power to hold a second referendum.

So the chances are a fresh vote on Scotland’s constitutional future will have to wait until after the 2021 Holyrood elections.

That would allow the SNP to seek a renewed and unequivocal mandate for a second referendum – but just as important it would also give the ­pro-independence campaign time to set out an updated prospectus, put ­forward the arguments in a new ­context and try to win over voters who could not be convinced last time.

SNP former cabinet minister Alex Neil accepts a fresh vote probably can’t be held before 2021, but he has called on Ms Sturgeon to produce a new independence white paper next year to build momentum for a second referendum so they are ready to go. “We have got to build up momentum and engage in a persuasion exercise,” he says. “That way there will be no delay. It will also get 45 per cent of voters behind us going into the election, which would give us a majority in the Scottish Parliament.”

Many of the speeches at the conference have taken the familiar line of highlighting how much has been achieved under devolution, then urging delegates to think “how much more we could do with the full powers of independence”.

But people need a bit more detail than that. There are still big questions about currency, pensions and other matters which voters felt were not ­satisfactorily answered during the 2014 referendum campaign. Ms Sturgeon and others have acknowledged the need to address such ­concerns. The party’s Growth Commission tried to come up with some of the answers but did not go down that well with many activists and has not yet been adopted as SNP policy.

Nationalists are as entitled to differences of opinion over policies as any other party, but if voters going to be asked to back major constitutional change, especially at a time of much upheaval on other fronts, they are need to know what they are voting for and what it would mean for them.

If the SNP hopes to realise its dream of independence it must make a clear and convincing case – and not leave it too late.