IT looks like a hopeless cause.
The opinion polls refuse to move. Professor John Curtice's authoritative polling blog,What Scotland Thinks has been struggling to find anything new to say as survey after survey tells the same story: that Scotland thinks it should vote No. At best, only one-third of Scottish voters support independence - a figure that has barely changed in the last three decades.
"But at least that means the No campaign isn't having much impact either," remarked one supporter of independence. Well, yes, if you're a devotee of positive thinking. As many in the SNP appear to be -because the remarkable thing is how upbeat the Nationalists remain, despite all evidence to the contrary. They don't look like losers and they aren't falling out with each other, as might have been expected in the past, over the lack of progress. Even Alex Salmond's omni-critic, former deputy leader Jim Sillars, has been quiet recently -though no doubt someone will put a microphone under his mouth at some stage.
Last year's division over the Nato U-turn, which led to the departure of two SNP MSPs, John Finnie and Jean Urquhart, seems to have left little lasting damage. There hasn't even been a witch-hunt. In years past, a policy reversal of such magnitude - since it weakens the long-standing commitment to unilateral nuclear disarmament - might have divided the SNP down the middle.
Top billing at this year's conference fringe goes to the former SNP MSP Andrew Wilson's defiantly-optimistic plan for a cross-party National Convention to map the way forward for independence after a Yes vote. Given the polls, this looks just a little previous. Moreover, the idea is borrowed from the Labour shadow minister Douglas Alexander, who last year called for just such a cross-party convention to map the future after a No vote. And even then, it received a pretty cool response from the Scottish leader, Johann Lamont. She doesn't seem minded to offer any consolation prizes to the SNP after the referendum, which Labour is positive will be a resounding No. That the former Labour First Minister, Henry McLeish, has enthusiastically endorsed Mr Wilson's initiative, probably guarantees that Labour will have nothing to do with it. And the Tories won't either. The only possibility might be a convention with the tiny Scottish Liberal Democrats, who will do anything to get some attention.
The National Convention is, however, a very sound idea - but it only has any chance of happening if it is set up before, rather than after the referendum. Indeed, if I were Mr Salmond I would seriously consider convening just such a body early in the New Year to involve all parties in the constitutional process, and ensure they are stakeholders in whatever result the Scottish voters produce. It would be in the spirit of the 2007 minority government, when he promised a new form of co-operative politics.
The only way to test whether the Unionist parties are serious about new powers for Holyrood is to have them put their proposals on the table before the referendum campaign begins in earnest in nine months time. If they refuse, the voters will make up their own minds. Certainly, there is precious hope for any cross-party initiative - devolution max, plus or minus - that isn't on the table before September 2014. If it is a No vote, all bets will be off, and the argument will be about repatriating powers to Westminster, not giving more to Holyrood.
But wouldn't a pre-referendum convention look like defeatism by Salmond? Surely, the SNP cannot be seen to contemplate any other outcome than Yes? Well, it has to contemplate a No vote for the obvious reason that most Scots do not appear to want full independence. Anyway, for the SNP to join in a cross-party National Convention doesn't mean it has to give up on independence. It merely shows that the SNP has been making the political weather and has been responsible for moving devolution on to the next stage.
Optimists in the Yes campaign insist that the battle isn't lost and that the supporters of devolution max have yet to register their vote. The hope is that the "disenfranchised middle" as they're called, will vote Yes in disgust at not being allowed to vote for their favoured option. There isn't much scientific basis for this expectation since, according to Prof Curtice, there is not a great deal of cross-over. But the best way for the SNP to turn the disenfranchised towards a Yes would be for it to involve them in the process of nation building before the referendum. It would build confidence in the SNP's open-mindedness and willingness to avoid sectarianism.
Paradoxically, the SNP is much more popular when it isn't proposing independence than when it is. It could never have achieved the electoral success of recent years had it still been dedicated to "independence, nothing less". Unfortunately, Mr Salmond became so popular in 2011 that he won a landslide at the last election and found himself having to launch a referendum which no-one - certainly not its voters - really wanted. At least not at this time. In a sense the SNP needs to find a way to sideline independence even as it is asking for a Yes vote.
The SNP can today claim the support of many the political Left in Scotland who are only tactical nationalists but see independence as the only way of resisting the relentless rightward march of Westminster politics. The Jimmy Reid Foundation doesn't formally support independence (indeed one of its key supporters is listed as Sir Alex Ferguson of Manchester United who is a virulent opponent of the SNP) but it has been promoting a communitarian alternative to the economics of the Conservative-led Coalition in Westminster. The Common Weal is not a blueprint for independence, but it is a model for a very different Scotland. This would be an excellent foundation document for a truly non-sectarian cross-party convention.
The SNP must always be seen to be leading or at least moving in tandem with progressive thinking in Scotland. Perhaps, indeed, this is one explanation for the equanimity of party members in the face of what looks like certain defeat. They really do believe that they have won the argument, and in one crucial respect, they have. It is now accepted even by leading Unionists like Lord Robertson that Scotland could be a viable economic entity as an independent country. No-one argues any more that Scotland would be a tiny, impoverished statelet off the shores of Europe. We are talking Norway, not Greece.
The SNP can console itself that, whatever happens in the referendum, it has moved the debate in Scotland on to radical new territory that is incompatible with Westminster politics. Such a cross-party initiative can only strengthen voter support for the SNP in Holyrood. Labour hasn't yet found a way of breaking Mr Salmond's popularity and until it does, the Nationalists are likely to remain united and unnaturally relaxed. If the SNP is seen to bring together progressive forces in Scotland, and rise above party tribalism, it could inherit the future, whatever happens in September 2014.
We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis. If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules, which are available here.
Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.