THE saying goes that “when the cat’s away the mice come out to play” and so it was with the First Minister in China, with internal divisions within the SNP surfacing over a second independence referendum. Leading MPs publicly differed and it has become the surrogate issue for the otherwise meaningless depute leader contest and will therefore rumble on for some time.

Of course, debates on independence are nothing new in the SNP and the timing of a referendum has simply replaced historic arguments between gradualists and fundamentalists that ebbed and flowed over generations until devolution arrived.

The closeness of the last independence referendum result, allied to the surge in new members has seen a transition of the debate and indeed a change in many of the main players. In some ways it mirrors a new SNP where many joined at or after the last referendum and because of it. For some of them, the holding of another is the be all and end all of membership.

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More long-standing members joined when independence was just a dream and a referendum was still a tactic to be developed. Membership was based on a hope for, as well as a belief in independence, but also in simply making Scotland a better place. The size and success of the SNP magnifies the importance of the debate, but the cause of independence still transcends the timing of another referendum and wider unity will prevail whatever the wishful thinking of opponents.

However, it’s a sign of growing frustration for many and a fraying of the otherwise iron self-discipline that once ruled. For that reason, Ms Sturgeon needs to get control of the debate and provide a focus for the party and the wider independence cause.

After all the debate has come about because of her premature, and many would argue foolhardy, call to arms back in March 2017. The SNP had licked its wounds after September 18, 2014 but was in good heart. Membership soared on the back of a referendum result that was remarkable in many ways given the challenges faced and the opposition deployed against it. The outcome of the UK General Election in 2015 gave the party a profile never previously seen and despite some self-inflicted errors in Scottish and council votes in 2016, was sitting pretty in Scottish politics.

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For sure, Brexit couldn’t have been predicted and it changed the whole nature of the debate on both sides of the Border. Scotland having voted No in the independence referendum lost control of its own destiny and was equally cast adrift as post-Brexit Britain floundered. Charting a course when you’re not at the helm is hard and it’s compounded when fools are at the tiller. It was therefore never going to be easy for the SNP to steer a course until calmer waters could be reached to go again for an independence vote.

But, the pronouncement of a referendum in March 2017 was an error, unusual from someone normally analytic in assessment, and viewing Brexit as an historic opportunity rather than a huge difficulty. It ignored the divide that existed within the party with a third of members having supported it, never mind that many others voted reluctantly and without enthusiasm for an institution that they found being venerated and asked to back unquestioningly. It forgot the challenges from the previous vote that concerns over a hard border had been avoided by EU membership, as the issue on the island of Ireland now shows. Finally, it ignored the fact that what had cost victory before, namely currency and the economy, had not been addressed..

The party then lurched into the 2017 elections and the loss of significant numbers of MPs and, more importantly, talent. There was referendum tiredness amongst the electorate accentuated by a variety of other factors from election fatigue to a hardening of Unionist support, but ultimately what cost the SNP was confusion and disillusionment amongst its own electorate. Pulling back from a second referendum was essential but in June 2017 the First Minister simply kicked it into the long grass and others have retrieved it.

It’s rather strange that the First Minister should have allowed the party to get into this morass. Back in 2016 a sensible position had been taken of allowing for a second referendum on cause shown but still putting it on the backburner whilst the base was built to go again. However, not only was there the premature call to arms but there was a failure to address the policy platform needed or construct the political base required. There has been little debate on the major issues and the Scottish Growth Commission on its own won’t be adequate. Why ideas haven’t been promoted is hard to fathom but it explains why many are now coming from outwith the party. Likewise, political bustle is coming from grassroots activists frustrated at inactivity. For sure, the party was tired as was everyone but the national conversation was a charade and simply knocking doors seems to have been forgotten by many.

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Just because support for independence is higher now than in 2011 doesn’t mean that you’re guaranteed to win. Unionists are better prepared this time and know the arguments to deploy, which is why answers are badly needed on the critical issues of currency and economy. There’s also work to be done simply speaking to voters who are frightened about what’s happening and it’s not political opponents but apathy and despondency which are the biggest threat to the SNP and the independence vote. Continuity Acts enthral activists but fail to enthuse the core support,.

Ms Sturgeon needs to lead from the front, stating there’ll not be a referendum until the base is built and the opportunity to win is there. The fog of Brexit has to lift for clarity on currency, borders and the economy. The British state is increasingly dysfunctional but the case for the Scottish State has still to be made; it needn’t take years but it won’t be months. Getting the party working on policy and out on the doorsteps must therefore be the priority.