Ask me how I am. Ask me how I feel after watching John Swinney address the SNP conference and I’ll tell you. I’m frustrated, and confused. Who exactly does Mr Swinney think he’s talking to? What does he think his speech will achieve? And can he really think, deep down, that the tactics will work?

In case you missed the speech, let me summarise the main points. COP26 was important, he said, even though the SNP were “not meant to be at the top table”. The pandemic has underlined how unequal society is. Recovery from the virus will be a “Team Scotland” effort. And – hold on to your handbag for this one Mrs, it’s a shocker – the only way forward for Scotland is independence and the case for it has never been stronger.

The section of Mr Swinney’s speech on devolution is also worth quoting at some length. The Tories, he said, have been quietly working to undermine it. We are seeing a concerted attack on the Scottish parliament and the Tories have given themselves unfettered power to decide the rules of the UK internal market and to ignore the devolution settlement if they want to.

It goes on. The Westminster control-freaks are determined to undermine devolution, says Mr Swinney. “In public the Tories say they are committed to making devolution work,” he says, “but behind the scenes they are plotting to make it unworkable … piece by piece, devolution is quietly being filleted. We need to use a Code Red for Devolution.” And: “we will fight this Tory power grab for as long it takes.”

There will be some people who believe everything Mr Swinney says and for whom the speech will have gone down well, including possibly the First Minister herself who has said in the past that the Tories are out to “demolish” devolution. Also, at the core of what Mr Swinney said, albeit well-hidden under the hysteria, is a point about the letter of the Internal Market Bill failing to abide by the principle that the Scottish Parliament has control over devolved areas.

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However in every other respect, Mr Swinney’s speech hit a new low in content, tone, and, most importantly, an understanding of the political landscape. If the Internal Market Bill – whose aim to keep the UK market working is perfectly reasonable – does pose issues for devolution, they are only going to be sorted out by co-operation and consent on both sides rather than talk of “Code Red” or devolution being “filleted”. Reasonable voters hear that kind of stuff and compare it to the reality, which is that since devolution successive UK Governments have respected and indeed expanded its conventions and scope. Using the vocabulary of the conspiracy theorist will not help.

Which brings me to the questions I started out with – firstly, who exactly does Mr Swinney think he’s talking to? Admittedly, he was delivering a speech to his party’s conference but even some of the loyalists can see the difference between what Mr Swinney says about “our movement growing” and the lack of actual progress. Where is the serious planning for independence? What progress has been made on holding a referendum in 2023? And is it likely to happen when the polls are showing few signs of any shift towards consistent majority support?

Mr Swinney’s speech also demonstrates a serious lack of understanding of the wider audience that might hear it: people who are in the centre, people who are swithering over independence, people who may dislike the Tories as much as he does, people basically that Mr Swinney needs to convince. Does he think that talk of devolution being filleted, or the independence movement growing when it isn’t, will help? Or would something more reasonable and nuanced and realistic help him to achieve what he wants?

Which leads us to the final question which is whether Mr Swinney and his comrades really think a speech like this will work. The SNP have been using these tactics for quite a while now – the Tories are out to get us, the Scottish Parliament is under threat, independence is coming/inevitable – and yet still the latest YouGov poll shows 46% of voters opposed to independence with 40% in favour and 9% unsure. Perhaps more worryingly for the SNP, the personal approval ratings for Nicola Sturgeon – by far the strongest pillar in the edifice – have also been falling. She’s still way ahead of her rivals but her popularity has fallen from +27 last May to +12 now.

The conclusion to all of this must surely be that if something isn’t working then you should stop doing it and try something else and yet we have a speech from Mr Swinney saying his movement is growing (it isn’t) and the Tories are out to fillet devolution (they aren’t). Mr Swinney’s comment about the case for independence growing stronger every day is also clearly a wilful denial of the doubt that many voters are still feeling about money and the economy and borders and all the rest of it.

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An alternative – and I accept that it means a much longer-term strategy for the SNP that some are unwilling to countenance – is a more honest take on politics and a more humble one. The psephologist John Curtice said the other day that the First Minister is in danger of looking like a politician who’s stuck in second gear and that, as far as he can see, there is little sense of progress towards the ultimate goal of independence.

However, Sir John also pointed out that Nicola Sturgeon remains Scotland’s most popular politician (albeit not as popular as she was a few months ago) and that the SNP is still far and away Scotland’s most popular party. The question surely then – particularly for the people who write speeches like Mr Swinney’s – is how to maintain and boost that popularity. Is it by repeating the same old refrains, like a crooner on an eternal comeback tour, or is it by reaching for something more honest, and realistic? Something closer, in the end, to the world that voters can see for themselves.

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