I get it: we all say things in private we would never say in public, so I understand why Alyn Smith, the nationalist MP for Stirling, was annoyed when one of his emails was leaked to a newspaper. Mr Smith thought he was expressing his views to colleagues confidentially, but someone sent his email to The Sun and, all of a sudden, private became public and we were all able to gawp at what he said. It does not look good.

Mr Smith’s email was actually about a pretty dull subject on the whole: the make-up of the party’s executive committee, but in talking about it, he tackled one of the issues that goes to the heart of Scottish nationalism: the primacy of independence. Nationalists usually argue that Scotland would be better off economically and socially because of independence, but it actually doesn’t matter because independence is their top priority. Their thinking is: the economy and equality are important, but not as important as independence.

This is the way, to be honest, that a lot of nationalists think, but they usually keep quiet about it because they know left-leaning voters would not be impressed. Lots of voters actually put equality as their top priority rather than the constitution and some of them voted Yes in 2014 because they thought independence would improve equality and some voted No because they worried it would make inequality worse – I talked to lots of voters who think along these lines when I was on the ground with the Yes campaign in 2014. They’re the opposite of nationalists: equality comes first, not independence. For nationalists, it’s the other way round.

It is this kind of context that makes Mr Smith’s email so interesting, and embarrassing. What he said was that changes were needed to the SNP’s national executive committee because so much of the party's oxygen was taken up, in his words, by peripheral issues like reform of the law on gender. The BAME, women’s and disabled conveners and others should lose their places on the NEC, he said, and become part of a separate forum instead. “Equalities are close to my heart,” said Mr Smith, “but not as close as independence.”

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It is that last phrase that’s the killer and it’s a bit unpleasant to see it written down in such stark terms – unpleasant but not surprising. In 2016, Nicola Sturgeon wrote a piece for The Sunday Herald in which she said the case for self-government transcended the issues of Brexit, of oil, of national wealth and balance sheets, and of passing political fads and trends. The comment may have been less nakedly honest than Mr Smith’s, but it amounts to the same thing: independence matters more than everything else, even – and this is the extraordinary bit – national wealth.

But let’s not over-egg the comparison between Ms Sturgeon and Mr Smith because there’s a big difference between them and it demonstrates why the First Minister is doing so well during the pandemic. Scottish independence transcends every other issue for her – she said so in The Sunday Herald – but as First Minister she also knows that the public health problem has to be the priority. In times of crisis, she said at the start of all this, the issues that divide us seem less important.

This approach by the First Minister has not gone down well with some supporters of independence – the ones that take the “Independence First” principle literally, or want new pro-Yes parties, or are aching for the return of Alex Salmond, like Aslan from Over-The-Sea. We also shouldn’t be too lenient on the First Minister – pupils and parents caught up in the SQA debacle, for example, might disagree that she has put independence to one side to concentrate on domestic matters.

However, for another constituency of voters, Ms Sturgeon’s approach is playing very effectively and probably explains why her party, and its cause, is doing well in the polls. Scotland’s first SNP government, from 2007, knew it was more important to look responsible than pick fights with London and it was relaxed about passing motions which allowed Westminster to enact laws on which there was common ground and it played well with voters. The same is happening now: Ms Sturgeon knows it’s important to look responsible in a time of crisis and it’s playing well with voters.

The fact that the First Minister has handled the crisis in this way reflects well on her; the way in which she’s getting it right is also demonstrated by the way in which Alyn Smith got it wrong in his email. Mr Smith said equality was close to his heart but not as close as independence whereas the First Minister has backed off on the pronouncements about independence because she knows it would sound wrong during the coronavirus crisis.

All of this has led the First Minister to a pretty clear interpretation of what’s been happening for her party, as well as a strategy for the future. “Right now,” she says, “the majority of the people in the country we serve are worried about their health and they're worried about their ability to pay their bills. Opinion polls would suggest they massively trust the SNP to lead them through that crisis. If they ever thought the SNP was turning away from that priority and focusing on its own agendas and engaging in in-fighting I'm sure they would pass a verdict on that."

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I think it’s hard to disagree with that analysis, but it creates two problems for Ms Sturgeon. First, there are many in her party who disagree with her and think the focus should always be on the agenda of independence first and the disquiet is likely to get louder the longer the First Minister “focuses on what matters to people” rather than independence.

However, the second problem is potentially more serious. The dissenters in her party – troublesome as they are – will ultimately, always, support independence, whereas the voters impressed by the First Minister’s handling of coronavirus may be more fickle. At the height of a crisis, they’ve liked the First Minister’s tactics and style, but as coronavirus drops down the agenda and independence returns to the top of it, they may not be quite so happy. The First Minister and leader of the campaign for independence has been guided by her head rather than her heart. But what happens when the heart takes over again?

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