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Alex Bell: Confidence factor may have improved for Yes camp, but the details have not

A demonstration calling for the independence of Catalonia marches in Barcelona.
A demonstration calling for the independence of Catalonia marches in Barcelona.

What luck for Nicola Sturgeon. Indy becomes the majority view, but Covid-19 prevents any action. Blessings come in disguise.

The virus has bought 58% support for independence in the latest poll, an emotional swing away from the inept Boris Johnson towards the comforting Sturgeon. One the fallen angel, the other St Nic the saviour.

It means it wasn’t currency, deficit or pensions which lost the 2014 vote, but a critical lack of confidence that the Yes camp knew what they were doing.

Alex Bell

This seems to have been corrected.

Calm at Covid-19 equals competent at the constitution.

What’s more, the gender imbalance in support for Indy is no longer a thing, with risk-averse women as likely to back the idea as men.

Gerry Hassan, academic and commentator, says this makes independence the new normal. From now on, we conduct ourselves as if Indy was the settled will – a phrase used to describe devolution in the 1990s.

Yet like so much of the new normal, it doesn’t feel permanent, or even real.

At the time of Catalonia’s bid for Indy in 2017 I wrote how the SNP were waiting for the equivalent of Madrid’s troops to hit them over the head, a visible injustice.

Instead they got a virus.

But we all know what happened in Catalonia when the emotion faded and the details emerged: The revolution failed.

The swing is predicated on the idea that Scotland has done better in some way than England, but it has not. It’s been appallingly bad in responding to the virus, among the worst in the developed world.

This has exhausted our NHS, carers and other responders. If that tiredness, coupled to frustration at bad decisions and changing rules, should lead to systemic failure, then the trust in the Scottish Government will evaporate.

The confidence factor may have improved for the Yes camp, but the details haven’t. We still don’t know the currency, the true deficit or how UK pensions will be paid. Nor how we’ll get back into the EU, if we will keep Trident, or the hardness of the border at Carlisle.

Andrew Wilson, he of the SNP’s Growth Commission, addressed the nation through a newspaper last Sunday. Looking like an avuncular Tom Hanks, plump in his wing-back chair, he said we will be independent by 2026.

He quickly got in a spat with Joanna Cherry, whose legitimate shot at contesting Edinburgh Central for the SNP was sabotaged by a party fix so crude it would have made Tammany Hall blush.

This row was part of one of many splits in the party. The SNP has trashed the reputation of its old god, Alex Salmond, and is in the process of doing the same to his successor, Sturgeon. A party that once took pride in being tight-knit now looks like a knot of vipers.

The 58% support is presumably based on Sturgeon’s competence as leader. If she should look grubby, she may be forced out. That is certainly the aim of some associated with the Salmond camp.

Will women and men equally support Indy if Nicola is gone?

Which raises the point of who succeeds her. Wilson’s defence of Angus Robertson, also bidding to stand in Edinburgh Central, is based on the plan that the former MP become the next party boss.

Robertson has public admiration and career experience. He might make a good leader. However, it’s far from clear he’d win any contest.

There is huge anger in the SNP at the cabal who ran the party for the last 20 years. People like Wilson and Robertson have been in the inner circle, a place few ordinary members ever get access to. The rank and file are losing trust that the cabal knows best.

In any election for party leader after Sturgeon, it is quite possible Robertson would lose. Certainly the idea that HQ could engineer a result looks less credible now than at any time in the last two decades.

Which might result in a very different party. Like it or loathe it, but the leadership team forged by Alex Salmond and continued by Sturgeon pursue a centrist, cautious agenda. If they are vague on details about currency etc, it’s because they are prepared to compromise on what independence means. There are plenty in the movement who would be more confrontational and ideological.

Would support for Indy be at 58% if we were honest about Covid incompetence, if Sturgeon weren’t leader, if the party was more forthright?

I doubt it. As does Sturgeon.

The leadership thinks the poll lead is fragile, a soft support, as the jargon goes. It fears the Sturgeon/Salmond row could yet destroy everything. It knows the lack of detail on key issues will be a weakness in any referendum.

So while it enjoys the mood, Sturgeon is in no hurry to act. Last year’s party conference promised a referendum this year. Covid got them off that hook, as it has boosted support, and as it delays any further action. Nobody asked for it, but the virus has been St Nicola’s saviour too.

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