The past week has been a significant one for the Scottish independence movement. The SNP’s convention in Dundee, coupled with the death of the movement’s matriarch, Winnie Ewing, means that nationalists have been simultaneously ruminating on the past while trying to figure out the future.
Ewing’s impact on Scottish politics was considerable. Her victory in the 1967 Hamilton by-election heralded the breakthrough of the SNP into the mainstream and the party has enjoyed continuous representation in the House of Commons ever since. She lived through, and was partly responsible for, the dramatic rise in support for both the SNP and Scottish independence. When Ewing won Hamilton more than half a century ago, independence was a topic of political obscurity. Today, support for Scotland ending its union with England hovers somewhere just south of 50%.
This weekend’s independence convention was interesting for many reasons. It didn’t sit within the usual rhythm of party gatherings; it was neither a conference, nor the kind of smaller, more focused gathering of party members we have seen before. This left attendees – both card carrying members and the media covering it – unsure what to make of the affair.
Its purpose soon became clear. It was an opportunity for the party’s leadership to invigorate, listen to, and perhaps most importantly, reassure the party loyal after what has been a bruising few months. In terms of concrete developments, first minister Humza Yousaf confirmed that independence would be front-and-centre of the SNPs campaign in a general election, with a vote for the SNP indicating support for independence.
Some might say this is a bold move. Others found it underwhelming. What is clear, is that the SNP currently finds itself in a position whereby the party itself is losing support, but polls show support for independence remains steady. The first minister’s strategy may well persuade estranged pro-independence voters to back the SNP at the ballot box. Whether or not it will deliver independence remains to be seen.
There are serious conversations being had within the SNP about where the party and the movement goes next. Former social security minister, Ben Macpherson, set out his views on the matter ahead of members descending on Dundee. He argued that there is no shortcut to independence and that Scotland will only leave the union once there is a sustained majority in support of that vision for Scotland’s future.
There are some within the independence movement who are beginning to realise that the kind of referendum we saw in 2014 will likely never be seen again.
If Scotland does hold another referendum, its purpose will be to confirm a level of support for independence which is already established and understood, not to test the appetite of Scots on the matter. Should that level of support for independence be reached, the people of Scotland will surely know it. The task for the independence movement is to get it there.