It was supposed to be today. Back in June 2022, Nicola Sturgeon promised that today, October 19, 2023, Scotland would go to the polls in a second independence referendum. Finally Scotland would embrace its destiny and soar to freedom on a blue and white rocket of hope. Or something.

Ms Sturgeon might be looking out at the rain today and consoling herself that perhaps it’s just as well it never happened. Who has better brollies, nationalists or unionists? Now we’ll never know.

But there’s no hiding the difficulty. The promised referendum isn’t taking place because the SNP couldn’t deliver it. The Holy Grail has slipped out of reach, for now. Ms Sturgeon made it sound like independence was on the horizon; now it’s slipped well below it.

Given the party’s diminishing public support, how are they to get the campaign for independence back on track – particularly when they might lose the general election in Scotland?

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Well, losing might be the best thing for them. If the SNP lost the Holyrood election in 2026 too, so much the better. A period for the SNP in opposition would provide the clean slate both the party and the campaign for independence badly need.

Independence is best sold by insurgents and outsiders as the solution to the failures of a rotten establishment. For years, the SNP’s great trick was to act like an opposition party in government, but voters saw through that long ago. The SNP itself has become the establishment. They are seen as part of the malaise.

Grievances about the SNP are building among diverse interest groups. Highlanders are annoyed about the A9, islanders are fed up about ferries, teachers and parents are unimpressed by the attainment gap and tight budgets, patients are despairing about waiting lists, businesses are complaining about a lack of consultation and engagement, and on and on. There have been successes as well of course but the sense of discontent is palpable. Can we trust them to set up a new country when they have such trouble building a new ferry, people might reasonably ask.

It's difficult to argue for ambitious and risky change from such a position.

It’s even harder given the persistence of SNP infighting. The divisions are too deep and bitter to ignore. They are damaging voter confidence in the party and will have to be confronted eventually. Opposition is the place for reflection and reinvention.

If Labour win in the next Westminster election, and perhaps the Holyrood vote too, then so be it: the shine of the new will eventually wear off (it always does) and the SNP will become the natural home for discontented voters.

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Making the independence case from government just isn’t working. It’s now the position of the SNP leadership that the party needs to stop talking about process – Section 30 orders, court battles and fantasy referendums – and focus on the issues of substance. No argument there.

But it’s hard to do that from government. When challenged this week about the cost-of-living crisis and how talking about independence feels distant from most people’s lives, depute leader Keith Brown answered that his party needed to explain to folk that independence was the route out of the crisis.

This stretches credulity. How? When? Even if there were an immediate referendum, there would be no prospect of independence for years. A newly independent Scotland would have a serious debt headache and higher borrowing costs than the UK. Stimulating economic growth is possible – it’s always possible – but it’s not simple or quick.

So independence is not in fact the solution to a financial crisis in the here and now. For the government of Scotland to be claiming that it is only makes them sound like they’re out of other ideas and trying to evade responsibility for doing more about it.

It’s easier to make the case for long-term change from opposition. Then you can publish papers to your heart’s content addressing thorny issues like borders and currency without being accused of ignoring the day job of looking after schools and hospitals. You can start pushing the numbers up towards the 60 per cent you’d need to be confident of a referendum win.

Demographic change would help. This assumption that younger independence-supporting voters would replace older unionists as a natural function of time is overstated, since it wrongly assumes that positions once taken do not change. Even so, there’s no mistaking the greater enthusiasm for independence among the under-40s.

The SNP have a blueprint for success already: they only need to consider how Labour and the Lib Dems, with the support of civic society, built the foundations for devolution in the 1980s and 1990s. Faced with a Westminster government that was implacably opposed to a Scottish Parliament, the parties held a constitutional convention. It thrashed out the issues and developed a plan. By the time of the vote, support in Scotland for the proposed parliament was so overwhelming that the referendum was almost a formality.

The SNP are up against similarly implacable Westminster opposition; they too like the idea of a constitutional convention. But independence is more divisive than devolution and they’ll struggle to build broad-based support for it as a tired, weakened veteran party of government.

Perhaps the SNP’s biggest challenge is to make their restless supporters see that it’s better in this race to be a tortoise rather than a hare. The impatience of cultish Yessers who believe they were robbed in 2014 by a dishonest No campaign has been a perpetual distraction from the real problem: that the Yes side just hasn’t convinced enough people that independence is a good idea.

Ideally, the SNP right now would take a long sabbatical from government. They’d hand back the keys to Bute House and have some Labour-style group therapy about how they got into this mess, and how they were going to get out of it.

And then they’d start the serious business of building a renewed coalition for independence. An end to governing would be the new beginning the SNP so badly needs.