LIKE a band returning to its favourite stadium, the SNP leadership will be back in The SEC Centre in Glasgow come October for the party's annual national conference. It will be just like old times as fans gather to hear the classics, including “Take A Chance on Me” (Nicola Sturgeon, solo), and Alex Salmond’s “Gimme, Gimme, Gimme (A Job)”. Think the most middle-aged fun you can have with your clothes on is a Mamma Mia screening? Think again.

Unlike other bands, the SNP leadership will not indulge in the tiresome practice of playing songs from the new album. No-one will have to rush from the room on hearing the opening bars of “Scotland: The New Case for Optimism –A Strategy for Intergenerational Economic Renaissance”. That one, known as the Growth Commission report for short, is off the playlist.

Of 32 motions long-listed for debate, none looks at the commission’s recommendations, which include an independent Scotland keeping the pound and radically reducing the deficit. Chris McEleny, an SNP councillor who failed in his bid to become the party’s depute leader, called the omission “absolutely astonishing”, adding: “How can we not be debating the biggest contribution to the independence case since 2014?”

Or to put it less charitably, what is the leadership afraid of?

Ms Sturgeon announced the setting up of the commission, chaired by former SNP MSP Andrew Wilson, in 2016. From that point to report publication in May this year, any thorny questions about the economics of an independent Scotland could be deflected by referring to the commission’s work. Let it get on with the task, and all will be revealed. It was a clever strategy, the economics equivalent of MGM's hunt for Scarlett O'Hara. The longer the wait, the more anticipation grew.

Eventually, it arrived, and it was … wait for it … an impressive piece of work. Ambitious but realistic, measured yet hopeful, bold in its prescriptions and clear in its intent. The Financial Times noted that it “outlined a more sober – and fiscally credible – case for a separate Scotland than the Pollyannaish vision the SNP offered ahead of the 2014 independence referendum.” Historian Sir Tom Devine said it might have closed the gap in 2014 and resulted in a narrow majority for independence.

John Kay, a fellow of St John’s College, Oxford, praised the report’s competence. Will Hutton, principal of Hertford College, Oxford, and whose book, The State We’re In, did so much to pave the way for New Labour’s economic renaissance, also reckoned it would have put the Yes campaign in a stronger position. If these were movie reviews the posters would have been a starry, starry sight.

But not everyone agreed that this was the way to a stronger, fairer Scotland. The left said the plan condemned Scotland to a future of severe public spending cuts. The Institute for Fiscal Studies think tank looked at the numbers and forecast “at least another decade” of current, Tory-level, austerity. Others wondered why Scotland could not have its own currency.

While the leadership made minor moves to answer criticisms, Ministers appeared rattled and in a rush to move on. National assemblies to discuss the document were promised, and, fair enough, these will take place in August and September. But these will not vote on the contents of the report. Nor do they look like being able to accommodate everyone who wants to have their say. As of a few weeks ago, the Edinburgh event on September 9 was fully booked and had a waiting list, and the Ayr and Aviemore meetings were heading the same way.

The party conference in October would have been the perfect place to showcase the report. Media attention guaranteed. A chance to get on the front foot, appear strong in a traditionally weak policy area. This could have been the SNP’s Clause IV moment. Instead, the plan will be ushered into the wings like some second rate act that did not live up to its promise. There will be no discussion at conference because a debate, if it is to have any meaning, is followed by a vote; and a vote brings with it the possibility of defeat. Though more than a decade in power, the SNP still acts like a nervous newbie, unable to handle internal dissent, no matter how mild or well-intentioned.

It is hardly a show of confidence in Mr Wilson’s report. If it is not robust enough to be debated among friends, one wonders what chance it has in the heat of another referendum campaign. Which brings us to what is perhaps the real reason for parking the plan. By failing to showcase it at conference, the leadership is giving yet another sign that it is nowhere near ready to call another referendum.

If it wanted to be battle ready it would have put the commission’s plan to the membership as soon as possible. At this rate, acceptance or decline will need to wait until the SNP National Council in December, or the Spring 2019 conference. By that point, the way both Theresa May and Brexit are tottering, the political landscape may have changed entirely.

Ms Sturgeon had a very good conference last year. Having just lost a third of her MPs in a General Election, she might have been expected to come in for criticism. Yet the bonds of loyalty held. She was lucky, too, in that Theresa May’s spectacularly awful conference speech made every other leader look good in comparison.

Will it be the same for Ms Sturgeon this October? One senior party figure, Alex Neil, told this newspaper yesterday that the early 2020s was beginning to look like a realistic date for a second independence referendum. That is a long time for Ms Sturgeon to hold the line against those who want a vote now, regardless of what Westminster thinks. On the upside, it is also plenty of time to knock the party’s economic policy into election fighting shape. If this vision of an independent Scotland will not fly with the membership or voters in general, it is better to know now. Electoral fortune favours the bold, not the paper shufflers.