DOES Nicola Sturgeon still believe in independence for Scotland? That may seem a ridiculous question. The SNP leader has devoted her life to the cause of freeing Scotland from Westminster rule. And yet, there is a real question of how she expects Scotland is to become independent.

But a number of influential figures in the SNP are at best unconvinced that she has the determination or the will to secure independence. Kenny MacAskill MP, the former Scottish justice minister, called for a new Independence Party last week – an astonishing move for a party which has made almost a fetish of party unity in the past.

He claims it would not be in opposition to the SNP, however. The idea is that this Independence Party would seek to stand only in list seats for the next Holyrood elections, where the SNP does poorly. But this Provisional SNP, as it might be called, is still a massive challenge to Nicola Sturgeon’s authority, especially since there are whispers that Alex Salmond might come back to lead it. The move has been condemned out of hand by her deputy, John Swinney.

Also last week, the former SNP MP for East Lothian, George Kerevan, issued a harsh critique of the SNP leader. He claims that she and her husband, the party chief executive Peter Murrell, have installed a “conservative bureaucracy” and have “governed in the interests of ... London banking, foreign agribusiness, big oil, property development and major landowners”. Accusing the SNP leader of being, effectively, a Tartan Tory is about the most offensive charge imaginable in the party.

The late SNP leader Gordon Wilson – a man whose conservative demeanour belied his radicalism – insisted that “the SNP is a revolutionary party” dedicated to overthrowing the status quo.

Not through violence, of course, though that could never be ruled out in a revolutionary cause. But certainly disruption and civil disobedience were regarded by nationalists of Wilson’s generation as being entirely justified.

More important was their belief that independence, freedom, was an end in itself and not an economic calculus. It accepted overthrowing the established constitutional order could and probably would involve short-term dislocation and a degree of personal sacrifice.

Put simply: you don’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. Watching the First Minister handle the Covid crisis with her characteristic prudence, applying the precautionary principle to every step in the road, you have to wonder if such a cautious leader would be willing to crack the shells in a revolutionary cause.

If she got her favourite adviser, Benny Higgins, the former chief executive of Tesco Bank to do a scoping exercise on the merits of independence, much as he did over Covid recovery, what would he say? Well, obviously that Scotland could be a viable independent country, like New Zealand or Denmark, but that there could be considerable disruption to cross-border trade.

He’d say that Scotland would be left with a large budget deficit which would mean tight spending for perhaps a decade. He would also advise that a Scottish currency, if introduced immediately, could lead to a flight of funds out of the country and severe disruption to the financial services sector. We know this because it was what the First Minister’s own Sustainable Growth Commission Report said two years ago.

If you apply the precautionary principle to independence it is quite hard to justify it. Some people might get hurt, at least financially. But didn’t Nicola Sturgeon support independence only six years ago in the referendum? She practically wrote the book on it: the Independence White Paper of 2013. There was no hint of any doubt in her mind then. But then, independence in 2014 was a different proposition to what it would be today.
For a start it assumed both Scotland and England remaining in the European Union and continuing to be subject to its many laws on trading standards, environment, human rights etc. If Scotland had voted Yes in 2014, we would have retained the pound, the monarchy, and many pillars of the UK state, like the BBC and defence co-operation.

There was no question of a hard border in the UK under the 2014 plans – except in Better Together propaganda. Indeed, Nicola Sturgeon condemned Labour politicians like Ed Miliband and Ed Balls who suggesting that independence might involve border posts, currency disruption and different trade laws between Scotland and England. Unionist scaremongering, she said.

Under independence today, there very obviously would be border issues since Scotland intends to rejoin the European Union. There would no doubt be a common travel area, but the self-same issues that have arisen in Ireland would apply here. And remaining in a currency union with the rest of the UK would be problematic.

Under the Maastricht Treaty, member countries are anyway supposed to have their own currencies and to seek to join the euro. That may be honoured more in the breach than the observance, but it would still be an issue. Not least because not everyone in the SNP wants to rejoin the fiscally-conservative EU.

Anyway, why leave your economy largely in the hands of the UK Treasury and the Bank of England in a currency union if you want independence? This is not the UK of old, happily in harmony with the EU, but a hard-edged Brexit Britain led by right-wing nationalists who hanker back to Britain’s great days of splendid isolation.

Sturgeon’s most prominent left-wing critic, George Kerevan, says the SNP leader has broken with the working-class movement that nearly achieved victory in 2014 and which made the Yes campaign so effective. He lamented her refusal to attend the big independence marches and concluded that her objective is now to manage the status quo rather than overturn it.

Sturgeon has, in other words, been leading an establishment party, concerned above all with winning and keeping power. To which the obvious reply is, well what do you expect a party leader to do? She may have become a cautious, even small-c conservative leader, but under her guidance the SNP has become the dominant force in Scotland in a way no-one could have imagined 20 years ago.

Labour, which dominated in the 1990s, has almost become a marginal force. The Conservatives, who dominated Scotland half a century ago, are equally remote from power. Under Nicola Sturgeon, support for independence has grown significantly with a string of recent opinion polls now showing a clear majority for Yes.

There is certainly a big question mark about Sturgeon’s route to independence – following her “shelving” of indyref2 in 2017. It’s been a long shelf. But electoral success is not unimportant.

Indeed, it could be that the people of Scotland are about to force her hand. If the SNP wins another majority, as polls now predict, she may have to call another referendum even though Boris Johnson and now Sir Keir Starmer have said they would oppose it.

Nicola Sturgeon may be a safety first politician, who once said she should be judged on educational attainment, and does not like confrontation. She is entering a new era of constitutional politics in which she may be forced to live dangerously.