THE SNP conference meets once again this weekend, in an online format, at least. Speaking to a veteran SNP campaigner, we talked about how much the traditional in-person conferences were missed. Partly, this nostalgia referred to the ability to debate fully, to get a sense of one’s own political agency and to feel the atmosphere of the crowd after a rousing speech. But personally, too, it was an opportunity to socialise and to catch up with friends.

Now the speeches are televised statements. It is far easier to control things online. The age old right to heckle is removed. The arguments, the organising and the caucusing in the bars and cafes halted. There are no leaflets to receive, and no fringe buffets to share. But SNP members are informed that all of this is down to the pandemic. Thousands could gather for COP26, cinemas are open, and football matches are packed to capacity but SNP members can’t go to their conference.

They will be told – as will all of Scotland – that a referendum is on the way. Legislation will move through the Scottish Parliament. The aim will be to hold one in 2023. Maybe even a more precise date will be mentioned. But the caveats will remain. It will all be subject to the status of the pandemic. Of course, that could be as long as a piece of string. In a recent interview Nicola Sturgeon was asked to define what she meant. The reply: "While we are still worrying about face coverings and testing ourselves every day". You don’t have to be an epidemiologist to know that this could be for a very long time.

READ MORE: Rosemary Goring: Nicola Sturgeon should stay on as First Minister – for all our sakes

There is talk of a “detailed plan” in the works for an independence prospectus. But if you were serious about fighting and winning one in less than two years, it would be of great value to have answers to the key issues around borders, EU membership, currency and so on bedding in well in advance. Indeed – years have already been wasted on this front, and instead devoted to “stopping Brexit.” After which all planning was suspended for the pandemic.

The work we do have is confused, incoherent and certainly out of date. The Growth Commission still seems to set the tone – despite the fact that the pandemic should have made it redundant. Independence without a central bank for a minimum of ten years – in reality indefinitely – is a risible proposition in an era of furlough and at a time when state-led investment is critical. Moreover, EU membership without an independent central bank is pie in the sky. And if this was somehow achieved at a distant point in the future after a Yes vote – there must be a harder border with England.

None of this is palatable to the cautious and neoliberal SNP establishment. Neither is arguing for a full break with the UK with an independent currency.

It is little wonder that for the SNP leadership independence is far better as an ideal and as an electoral device. Here, there are many positives. Even when the domestic agenda is failing, having the monopoly on the independence question acts as a buttress to their electoral prospects. But the result is paralysis – on both independence and on devolved issues.

So, for example, despite SNP members voting near unanimously for a National Energy Company, the SNP MSPs voted against it in parliament. Forget such projects when even a can and bottle deposit scheme is pushed back to 2023 – the same year we are told there will be an attempt to dismantle the British state. The point is this: a tepid domestic agenda can be overcome with great – but unrealised – promises about independence.

READ MORE: Boris Johnson: They are laughing at you - not with you, says Kirsty Strickland

This stasis is a boon for the corporate lobby. A splash is made about the National Care Service. But who will design it? That goes to PriceWaterhouseCoopers. There is talk of a ‘just transition’. But who owns it? The big wealth funds and corporations currently buying up the Scottish Government's “£3 billion Green Investment Portfolio”. The Glasgow “Greenprint for Investment?” That’s a £30 billion bonanza for private investors. The Economic Recovery Group? That was led by the chef executive of Buccleuch Estates. The prospectus for independence? That went to Charlotte Street Partners.

There is now a permanent shift to defend foreign capital at the expense of public ownership – and indeed the infrastructure that would benefit a newly independent state.

The establishment is assuaged. Scottish politics is captured – and static. In 2014 independence was seen by a grassroots movement as a key to unlocking real change. Now, independence is being held hostage – kept on the boil but never to overflow. This does take skill. It requires a careful and constant tweaking of the message. It can go wrong. But so far, it has worked.

Nicola Sturgeon was right when she said that it appears that her opponents are praying for her resignation because they cannot win an election. But there are signs of resistance emerging outside the parliament. The recent strikes among cleansing and rail workers show that confrontations on class issues can and will emerge. Perhaps this is why the SNP deployed Tory anti-trade union legislation in Glasgow.

Issues are pressing. The NHS is in critical condition. Shamefully, child poverty has risen in every council area since 2015. And for those of us who see independence as a strategy to bring about a shift in power to Scotland’s working class – the present trajectory will not do. Public relations can be powerful. But there are limits.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.