AS WE mark the 20th anniversary of devolution, we look on to a world that has changed immeasurably in the last two decades. War and economic crisis have scarred the start of the 21st century. This is a century so far defined by a intensification of social discord, inequality and a long political crisis that is thrusting politics into uncharted territory, and eroding the legitimacy of once revered institutions.

Scotland has also been part of this flux by defying the hegemony of the British state. The independence movement of 2014 laid down a challenge to the very structure of the UK. The mass independence movement flourished from below, and set about dismantling the ideological architecture that said independence was an impossibility. Facing down threats of imminent economic shock, of companies leaving the country and of currency uncertainty, the Yes vote soared beyond what many thought possible.

In the last year the largest independence demonstrations in Scottish history have taken place. The constitutional crisis precipitated by Brexit means independence not only remains on the agenda, but is widely seen as something of an inevitability. The SNP have an iron cast, democratically-won mandate to hold a referendum, too.

But these circumstances also raise questions about the current strategy of the SNP. Specifically, is the SNP under the leadership of Nicola Sturgeon a party of independence or is the gradualism that contours SNP strategy leading to a devolution cul de sac? Alex Salmond wanted Devolution Max to appear on the ballot paper in 2014. But the conditions now require a far more agitational stance in the face of the Brexit crisis, which compels the Tories to deal with the Scottish question in a trenchantly anti-democratic manner.

It is striking that an objective analysis of the SNP leadership in this context is largely absent from Scottish commentary. Perhaps this is because in comparison to the those figures ascendant on the radical right the SNP leadership embodies a stabilising, ostensibly progressive, force. Nicola Sturgeon is the "adult in the room" in the context of the Brexit shambles. Happy to be applauded at Remain rallies, where shoulders are rubbed with the British establishment, but not addressing the independence demonstrations.

This tells us something of the approach and method of the SNP. It appears to be one of near permanent acquiescence to the status quo. At a time when the UK faces an existential crisis, and where even large sections of Conservative voters are more concerned about Brexit being delivered than retaining Scotland as part of the union, the independence movement requires leadership that challenges orthodoxies, and that is willing to confront institutional power. Yet there is a sense of deference and lack of initiative that convinces me that the present SNP leadership is more attracted to building on devolution, rather than being part of the dismantling of the UK and forging a new Scottish state.

We can see this, too, in the tactics around holding a new referendum on independence. How serious is the SNP about holding one in this parliament? We know that the major barrier is winning a Section 30. But that means you have to be prepared to seriously face down the British state. There is scant evidence to suggest SNP leaders are willing to engage in such a contest. Especially as we can posit the notion that the Tories are likely to become more indignant towards calls for a referendum, not less, given the balance of forces in Scotland and the risk of a Yes vote being won.

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It has been evident to many independence supporters that the primary time to call a referendum is when the Tories are in disarray. Key opportunities have already been missed to seize the initiative. And almost all leverage the Scottish Government may have had has been thrown away at the outset. In a very real sense, they are playing by the rules as dictated by Westminster. These are not normal times, and ‘normality’ is not on the horizon. That means we need leaders who are willing to take risks, take their vision to the country and mobilise their supporters in a serious and methodical campaign that can challenge attempts at disrupting the democratically-won mandate for an independence referendum.

In practice the opposite has taken place. In addition, the SNP has opened the door to an additional referendum if a Yes vote is won in the future by their insistence on elevating the so-called Peoples Vote – which has no mandate – above foregrounding the national question. They have weakened their own referendum mandate as a result.

Indeed it is as if the entire case for independence is now bound up inextricably with Brexit. No new over-arching case has been made, far less popularised. It is as if the obvious opportunity that is available to drive forward the independence agenda is being sacrificed for that gradualist approach that may have had credence in years gone by, but which is ineffective in the moment of dramatic constitutional breakdown we are witnessing today.

Perhaps though the primary element of the SNP Devo Max plan is the Growth Commission. This represents, in the author's own words, the "softest" version of independence. Once again, this suggests that the actuality of independence has been subordinated to a form of devolution. Ducking the challenges of setting up a sovereign state precisely because this would require a level of conflict with the British establishment that is simply unpalatable to the present leadership. Not wanting to confront the challenges of setting up a state that is autonomous from the UK, the SNP leadership accept that key areas of economic control should remain outside the democratic oversight of the Scottish people.

It can be easily forgotten by many supporters that the SNP has the same imperatives as any party of government. And it is through the perpetuation of devolution, under which the SNP can strike an anti-Westminster pose, that it may be felt that party political power and all of the trappings that go with it can be best secured. But that is not why 100,000 people joined, nor is it why the party has enjoyed electoral success since the referendum. Twenty years after the Scottish Parliament opened its doors the UK is in its deepest political crisis in modern history. That means a particular form of leadership is required. One that is willing to connect with and mobilise a mass movement, and to take on the decaying norms of the established order. Without that, we may be discussing the Scottish Parliament after 30 years of devolution in ten years' time.

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