IF I had to find a character from history to represent the SNP it wouldn’t be some general or revolutionary, it would be a French high-wire artist called Philippe Petit. In 1974, Petit tightrope-walked between the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Centre. For nearly an hour, he elegantly crossed backwards and forwards over the windy Manhattan canyons – dancing, lying down, even kneeling to salute astonished New Yorkers 1300 feet below.

Petit captured the imagination of the world for two reasons. Firstly, nobody had ever pulled off such a stunt. So the very act of completing the tightrope walk, not just successfully but with the grace of a dancer and the bravura of a toreador, meant the viewer couldn’t take their eyes off Petit. Secondly – shamefully – people watched in case he plummeted to his death. Petit could have fallen at any moment – one slip would have seen him die. Nobody admitted it, but the expectation of disaster was as enthralling as the showmanship.

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Today, the SNP is Petit. The party commands the stage, its performance is incredible, but what lies beneath its feet is so unsteady that there’s the expectation that something awful is going to happen at any moment. For the audience, this mix of quizzical admiration and a sense of mounting calamity mean it’s impossible to look away.

However, as an audience, the Scottish public today finds itself at the interval – kept on tenterhooks with the lead character, the SNP, poised precisely midway between absolute victory and complete defeat.

In a Western world where trust in politics is supposedly dead, the SNP defies the new norm. After a shaky start to handling Covid – which many commentators, myself included, rightly gave Nicola Sturgeon a hard time for – the Scottish Government broke out of effective lockstep with the shambolic UK administration. As Boris Johnson’s government staggered from one insulting, dangerous absurdity to another, Sturgeon projected calm and honesty – at the very least she was able to convincingly present herself as a person voters can trust.

If looked at from the perspective of history, there’s certainly an academic argument to be had, weighing the differences between how Edinburgh and London faired over the unfolding course of the pandemic. Some will say that in terms of hard policy there’s been little substantial difference in the actions of the two governments, and that when it comes to the numbers of fatalities there’s really not a lot statistically between the UK and Scotland. However, that perspective is increasingly more difficult to accept with each passing day as the differences between the two countries and their approach to Covid become more starkly defined.

The harsh truth, however, is that policy nuance and the fine detail of statistics don’t really matter that much in political terms. What matters is: are you a convincing and trusted leader? When it comes to Johnson the answer is a screaming No; with Sturgeon it’s a resounding Yes. Put bluntly, Johnson brings fear, and Sturgeon reassurance. That alone, as political capital, is worth a vault of gold.

The party is booming in the polls. If the SNP was traded on the stock market, you’d bet your pension on it. Support for independence is now the majority position. The party seems assured of more success at the next Holyrood elections. Surely, this is hegemony?

Even the looming big political hurdles and intergovernmental fights seem designed to play to the SNP, rather than damage it. Every threat to Scottish powers by Johnson’s government, every dismissing of a right to hold a referendum, every stupid Brexiteer policy, every idiotic Westminster gaff, just confirms for an increasing number of Scottish voters that anything is better than what’s going on in London.

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It might be different if there was effective opposition in Holyrood, but the unionist parties couldn’t hold their own toes to the fire if their feet were cold, let alone hold the SNP to account.

And talk of accounts brings us neatly to the rest of the balance sheet – the loss side of the ledger. Today, profits looks rosy for the SNP, but losses are coming, and soon.

The forthcoming inquiry into the Alex Salmond debacle will – as even the animals in Edinburgh Zoo know – pour acid over the party. The currency of trust could quickly devalue. Faith could become revulsion. Scandal could supersede success.

This corrosive circus comes as the Yes movement starts to split, reflecting the deep, dangerous fissures within the SNP. For a long time, there’s been a growing gulf between fundamentalists and gradualists. Now a new independence party has appeared threatening list votes for Yes.

The SNP is divided not just over how to achieve independence – and when – but on a flotilla of existential issues. The splits are town-country, populist-centrist, woke-traditionalist, green-business, left-right, and even Leave-Remain.

Inevitably, for an umbrella party which needs to pull as many into its big tent as possible, minor fights are taking on the shape of destructive division. That big tent has been up so long that punters inside are starting to turn on each other.

Then there’s the perception of growing anti-English sentiment. To be fair, the perception is mostly driven by fringe extremists many of whom have nothing to do with the broader Yes movement. But as with trust in the SNP over Covid, it’s perception that matters not facts. When the First Minister has to tell voters she doesn’t have “an anti-English bone” in her body, it’s clear matters have gone off message. Such a perception will repel newly acquired soft Yes supporters.

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I could close on a good old fashioned Scottish football metaphor warning the SNP about snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. But I began with a tightrope allusion, so indulge me in ending on one also. If the SNP can pull off its high-wire act and make it across the great gulf of political space to the other side of the tightrope, it will transform this country. It will take Scotland out of the UK and onto the world’s stage as an independent nation. The party would go down in history. If it falls from the tightrope, though, it’s all over. Not only will the party implode, it’ll take the dreams of independence down with it.

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