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JENNY HJUL: Nicola needs a party piece

Keith Brown.
Keith Brown.

Unless you were one of the 50,000 people the SNP claims to have spoken to over the weekend you may be unaware there was a nationalist ‘Day of Action’ across the country.

But according to the party, this was a great success. Organised by deputy leader Keith Brown, it aimed to engage with voters “to broaden the support for independence and to highlight the chaos Brexit will bring the country” as the SNP mouthpiece, The National, put it.

Broadening support is necessary because since the Yes movement was convincingly defeated in September 2014, the proportion of Scots in favour of separation has not budged.

This is despite the SNP being in power in Scotland all that time, with its hands on the financial levers, and also despite the UK-wide decision to exit the EU.

Any other political movement might have taken stock at this stage and concluded that if these circumstances were not enough to persuade people that Britain was finished, nothing ever would. Other political movements would then move on to fight more relevant battles.

However, the SNP is unique politically in that it exists for only one reason and it cannot very well abandon that reason (though it often abandons all other reason). So, being stuck with one goal, it is important to the party not to lose sight of it.

In Stirling on Saturday there were teams leafleting, knocking on doors and holding street stalls.

“This is about making our party’s presence and the presence of our movement seen and heard,” Stirling SNP organiser Lee Robb told The National, “as well as listening to the views of local people”.

Stirling council leader Scott Farmer said: “People are sick to the back teeth with this Brexit chaos, and that is resonating on the doorsteps.

“Many people we have spoken to today who would never have voted Yes to independence before, are seriously considering it now.”

The problem, as usual with these kinds of activist events, is that the SNP ends up talking to itself, and of course it therefore gets an overwhelmingly enthusiastic response. And this allows its grass roots to think they are regaining the momentum they lost, somewhere between the 2014 referendum and last year’s general election. And it gives them false expectations.

Instead of heartening the party leadership, the Day of Action will cause it even greater headaches at its conference, which starts in Glasgow on Sunday.

Keith Brown might have thought he was doing his boss, Nicola Sturgeon, a favour by whipping up support ahead of her appearance there, but he has rekindled the fires of secessionist desire when really this is not the right moment.

As the first minister prepares to meet her troops, she must once again find a way of deflecting their desperation for a second independence ballot.

She has been trying to get them to focus on Brexit and steer their referendum hopes towards a new vote on Europe.

But while many will be with her on this, there is more correlation between leaving Europe and leaving the UK within the ranks than she cares to admit. Her entire strategy of linking the European shambles with Scottish independence has backfired as a result.

Sturgeon realises that with the details of Brexit far from being resolved, the majority of Scots will never choose the further uncertainty of a constitutional crisis.

Even without Brexit, the majority of Scots preferred the known of the Union to the unknown. The timing is less optimal now than it was at the last party conference, or the one before, when she had to duck the issue. So how is she going to distract delegates, fresh from their banner waving, and on a campaign footing, as Brown insisted?

It is not as if she can boast about the SNP’s domestic record, bask in the glory of closing the education attainment gap, or crow about shortening hospital waiting times and curing the chronic mismanagement of the NHS in Scotland.

What else is there? Oh yes, Alex Salmond. That will be a distraction (if the party allows the matter to be raised), but not the one Sturgeon needs to maintain credibility with noisy nationalists, disappointed by the lack of progress on another plebiscite.

Party unity has been rocked by the Salmond sexual harassment allegations, with the former first minister suing the SNP government, a state of internecine treachery even the Conservatives have yet to sink to.

Discipline has not completely broken down, though it has been compromised, and Sturgeon may contain the fallout behind closed doors.

But she no longer walks on water in her party’s eyes and if she resists the ‘phenomenal’ shift in the independence campaign that the weekend warriors keep on about, Glasgow could be as painful for her as Birmingham is for Theresa May.