SCOTTISH nationalism has never had it so good. The facts, to any observer capable of even a morsel of impartiality (although there are not many of them around in Scotland) do all the talking.

The SNP is into its 14th year of government including, by the time next May’s election rolls around, a decade of dominance of Holyrood’s 129 seats, bookended by annihilations of its unionist opponents at Westminster.

Democratic gravity generally results in governments of this longevity limping their way to a massive electoral rebuke, but not so for the SNP, which with regular poll ratings of over fifty per cent will win handsomely in 10 months time and become, surely, the most successful party in the democratic world.

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If politics were sport, the SNP would be Mayweather, Federer on grass, Pep’s Barca, the 2000s Woods or the 1990s Chicago Bulls.

Almost as successful as the SNP is the movement it heads. Nationalists came closer, much closer, than unionists like to admit to victory in the 2014 independence referendum. Far from accepting that defeat, support for independence has grown steadily from that 45 percent base to at least a dead heat.

And, although I think it is risky for nationalists to invest too much stock in any polling conducted during an unprecedented crisis such as coronavirus, there is little doubt that, in this snapshot in time, nationalists are winning. Even No voters think that Nicola Sturgeon is doing a good job.

Scottish nationalism is in the jaws of victory. So why, three times in the last week alone, have different parts of the movement taken steps which risk snatching defeat?

Victory for nationalists is not a complicated route to chart. It has three elements: win a majority based on a clear manifesto commitment at a Scottish Parliamentary election; obtain agreement from the UK Government to allow a referendum to be held; persuade enough 2014 No voters to vote Yes.

So the question for nationalists, it seems to me, should be ‘does what I am doing make any of these elements more or less likely to happen?’. If we look at the output from the nationalist community over the last week, the answer has to be ‘less likely’.

Let us take it in turn. The creation of another pro-independence party – the Alliance for Independence or AFI – has been discussed for some time amongst those seen as agitators against Ms Sturgeon. They are, very broadly speaking, more fundamentalist about the route towards a second referendum and independence, set against the gradualist and more consensual approach of the SNP.

On the face of it, AFI is a clever concept, exploiting the SNP’s strength in constituencies, peeling off the wasted SNP regional votes, and scooping up a large proportion of the 56 regional seats.

The legitimacy or otherwise of ‘playing’ the Additional Member System (AMS) voting method is for another column, but as an exercise in maximising the number of seats for pro-independence parties the AFI proposal has solid logic.

However, this is not solely about electoral success in May. The entire purpose of the exercise is, I presume, to lay the foundation for a second independence referendum. However, without the consent of Westminster, nationalist parties could win 100 seats and there will still not be a second referendum.

There remains a debate in the Conservative party about the granting of indyref2. The official line remains that there will not be one. We’ve had one, we said no, we meant it, you said “once in a lifetime” and so on and so on. Many influential figures at Westminster want this to remain the position; others, though, understand the long term difficulties in repeating that age-old unionist mistake of ignoring what Scottish people have expressed a clear wish for, and hoping it will all be forgotten about.

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So what are the conditions under which the UK Government will find it most difficult to deny another referendum? The answer to that is, in my view, a single party, SNP-only majority. This entails a single, clear manifesto commitment, and a single party being elected on that platform.

A perceived manipulation of the voting system will give the UK Government an ‘out’; a muddying of waters as a result of blending different manifesto commitments will give the UK Government an ‘out’; the inclusion in the majority of a party linked to a more colourful and outlandish branch of nationalism will give the UK Government an ‘out’.

There were a couple of other emanations from different parts of the nationalist community over the last week – the protests at the border by a small group of extremists, and the decision by the All Under One Banner (AUOB) group to proceed with a march as soon as Phase Four of the lockdown exit arrives, citing independence as a health ‘emergency’.

It is in these decisions that the third condition for independence – persuading switching amongst ‘soft’ unionists who voted No in 2014 – appears once again to have been given no thought.

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Take the protesters in their Hazmat suits. On the fringes of the nationalist movement, yes, but nonetheless attracting national publicity. The 55 percent who voted No last time have, by definition, at least some affinity with the Union, and with England. It may be social, cultural, economic; it doesn’t matter what it is, it matters that it is there. I’d place a bet that precisely none of the two million people who voted No in 2014 will be persuaded by the Hazmat brigade. Indeed, it has more chance of pushing Yes voters the other way.

Similarly, the decision by AUOB, a more mainstream nationalist group, betrays a lack of understanding of who ‘soft’ Unionists are, and what they think.

The 20-or-so percent of voters who might go either way if there is another referendum are, self-evidently, moderate, pragmatic, and unbiased. Their choice is likely to be clinical rather than emotional. They probably voted No last time because they felt the nationalist arguments on the economy were too weak, too left-wing.

Tell me, then, how a march of thousands of highly committed, flag-waving leftist nationalists is going to persuade the persuadables?

If I were a nationalist, looking to achieve independence forthwith, I’d be sticking by the SNP strategy. After all, and this is something unionists would do well to remember, it is working.

Andy Maciver is Director of Message Matters

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