WHERE’S Alex? You know, Alex Salmond, the former leader of the SNP, who led the 2014 referendum campaign. Perhaps he’s been spirited away under a witness protection programme and given a new name. At any rate, his public profile since the publication of the SNP’s new Growth Commission report has been next to non-existent. This may not be unconnected with the fact that the Growth Commission report is being seen by many as a repudiation of the 2013 Independence White Paper, which was his bible.

But he might have cause to be just a little put out, because that optimistic independence prospectus was remarkably successful. Not only was the 2014 referendum result closer than anyone expected, the White Paper arguably formed the basis for the recent remarkable change in Scottish voter opinion on the economic case for independence. The number who believe the Scottish economy would improve after leaving the UK has risen from 26 per cent to 41 per cent since 2014, according to the British Social Attitudes survey. And this has nothing to do with the Growth Commission effect, since the research was conducted before Andrew Wilson’s report was published.

So something has been going right. Nicola Sturgeon had every reason to indulge in a bit of good old self-congratulation in her speech to conference, since the SNP’s popularity in Westminster and Holyrood is looking remarkably healthy, one year after the aborted independence referendum. Fourteen points ahead after 10 years in office is a remarkable achievement, almost unprecedented in British electoral history. And Labour being down five points in the latest YouGov poll on Westminster voting intentions is particularly gratifying for the SNP.

If true, it would kill the Corbyn surge stone dead as Scottish Labour would be again reduced to one solitary MP. That’s if there were to be an election tomorrow – which there very well might be if Theresa May’s government continues to collapse in Brexit disarray.

It’s perhaps not surprising in this context that there wasn’t much discussion of the Growth Commission on the floor of the SNP conference. Those who have been discussing it, outside the SNP, believe it has, by coming clean on deficit reduction, made Salmond look as if he was chasing unicorns in 2014.

Mind you, just imagine, in those TV debates with Better Together’s Alistair Darling, if Salmond had announced “robust” spending constraints would be applied on the morn of independence, followed by 25 years of sweat and tears until Scotland caught up with the Netherlands. He would have been torn apart. Or rather, Darling would have agreed with him – which is worse.

Salmond would at least have had a Plan B – sterlingisation – but Darling would have seen that as an admission that a Scottish pound would have to depend on the Bank of England setting interest rates for the foreseeable future without there being any scope for devaluation.

Alex Salmond is a brilliant politician, and salesman, but even the past master of chutzpah would have had difficulty selling that.

One of his most awkward foes in 2014 was the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which delivered a series of reports arguing that an independent Scotland, even with oil, would be in spending difficulties. The IFS will be delivering its considered report on the Growth Commission this week, and the good news for Andrew Wilson is that it’ll be endorsing it wholeheartedly. It thinks that Wilson’s plan is the only reasonable way to address the independence spending deficit in GERS.

However, it will also point out that this will still lead to big cuts in spending, even if the promised 0.5 per cent annual increase in overall spending is delivered. This is because overall spending including things like benefits and pensions, not just departmental spending, is going up a lot faster than that.

But perhaps the numbers are less important than we give them credit for. Scottish voters heard all this from Project Fear in 2014 and many discounted it. They may be inclined to look past the deficit numbers, fiscal projections and problems of transition, and see only the bright prospect of self-government. It may also be that Scots are prepared to put up with just a little hardship in order to gain the greater goal. They might even feel better disposed to a prospectus that admits that the risk is on the downside. That is certainly Wilson’s view.

However, while the voters may glaze over the numbers, his many critics in the independence movement are unlikely to go quietly. The Growth Commission report has divided the broad coalition that fought the 2014 referendum campaign and that has created, really for the first time, a serious and very vocal internal opposition, in the form of left-wing Yessers like Robin McAlpine of The Common Weal, who compares the report to “walking off a cliff”.

One of the leaders of the Radical Independence Campaign, Jonathon Shafi, joined forces last week with arch-unionist blogger Kevin Hague to demand a response from Wilson to the charge that the Growth Commission replicates the deficit reduction programme implemented by the UK Tory Chancellor, George Osborne, in 2010. They didn’t get one.

Instead, Wilson tweeted that he wasn’t interested in engaging with the “wall of criticism from the entrenched and partisan” and said he would engage with them “when an alternative prospectus is set out”. This seems improbable, which presumably means that the SNP isn’t going to discuss the document very much at all. This may be a good thing. Tensions had been building in the wider nationalist movement before the Growth Commission, but it seems to have marked something of a turning point.

Some prominent names from the indyref class of 2014 are so disillusioned that they are privately talking about giving up on politics, at least for the next few years. But they may find, when they return to the independence movement, that there isn’t a place for them any more. The political impact of the report has been to marginalise the left, and make it the target of open hostility from mainstream nationalists. Nicola Sturgeon is dropping heavy hints that the next independence campaign should be a wholly owned property of the Scottish National Party.

It is the First Minister alone who will lead the next referendum campaign, whenever that is. The recent mass street demonstrations, coupled with the very positive polling figures, puts even greater pressure on Sturgeon to fire the independence gun sooner rather than later.

She may have to overcome her innate caution. Support for independence on some reading of the polls, is actually up on 2014 – though still not over the 50 per cent barrier. This is pretty remarkable since independence has been off the political agenda for 12 months. The #ScotlandCan contingent say that if she waits until the polls show 55 per cent plus, she may wait forever.

The First Minister has a mandate – what she calls a “triple lock” – on a repeat referendum, won by a vote in the Scottish Parliament last year. But even on the very favourable voting figures, the SNP is unlikely to have a majority for independence after the 2021 Holyrood elections. The Mandate Tendency say it’s now or never. So, Nicola, do you feel lucky? Or perhaps the question should be: what would Alex do?