I RECEIVED a letter last week from Peter Murrell, the SNP’s chief executive for the past 21 years, offering me a free gift.

I expect a lot of party members got the same letter. The gifts proffered included a Scottie Dog soft toy wearing an SNP T-shirt – sadly I’m a cat person. Or I could have a big Saltire, presumably to wave on the next All Under One Banner march in Arbroath on April 4. I wonder if Pete will be there?

The reason for Murrell’s letter is the need to raise extra cash. He begins: “2020 is going to be a big year, as we build our momentum towards the second independence referendum.” Using a split infinitive worthy of Star Trek, he urges: “We need to urgently double the budget for campaigning. If we all chipped in an extra £1 a month, together we’d raise over £1 million more to help the party win over the waverers … ”

The National: Nicola Sturgeon

I was a bit perplexed by this rationale. On the last day of January, the First Minister made a much-heralded speech outlining her personal plan for delivering independence. It focused on there being a second indyref this calendar year – a promise few in the SNP think is credible. Boris Johnson is not going to grant a Section 30 approving a legal referendum this year.

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After the 2021 Holyrood election is another matter. Nevertheless, Nicola Sturgeon has very publicly pinned her Saltire to the 2020 mast. In which context, I find Murrell’s phraseology about building “our momentum towards” indyref2 a mite Jesuitical. Is he saying we are having a referendum in 2020? Or is he saying we are only “building momentum”?

Sturgeon also promised to double party spending “to support new independence materials, local newspaper adverts and a new campaign film focused on undecided voters”. No exact sums were mentioned. Clearly, the budget does not exist as we now have Pete Murrell sending out begging letters. Fair enough, but I’d feel campaign plans were more organised if we already had funding in place before actually promising a referendum in the next nine months (assuming an October poll at the latest).

No wonder a lot of folk in the independence movement are feeling perplexed by the First Minister’s speech and by Peter Murrell’s less-than-motivating fundraiser. Or by the uncertainty surrounding the timing of the party’s usual spring conference. Clearly, if we are truly expecting an autumn referendum, then the annual October party conference is a non-starter.

In which case, pushing back the spring rally to early summer – as a referendum launch pad – might make sense. But is that what is going on? Hardly, if the 2020 referendum is a political chimera. Besides, when did the party bureaucracy have the latitude to mess about with conference dates without the approval of elected party bodies?

Meanwhile, there are other political elephants in the room. The SNP Government survived the presentation of its Budget last week thanks to the undoubted skills of Kate Forbes. However, whatever its merits, no-one could call this a “war” Budget in advance of a prospective independence referendum.

The National: Kate Forbes MSP

Rather, it was a “safety first” affair clearly designed to keep all social classes mollified. I get that. Yet if you truly intended to maximise a referendum vote this year, the Budget would have taken more risks. Say: doubling the Scottish Child Payment; granting free bus passes for young people; and challenging Treasury rules on capital borrowing to launch a green, social housing programme that is genuinely transformative. Then next month we have the Alex Salmond trial. Suffice to say, the rumour mill is working at fever pitch. In fact, in all my quarter-century in the SNP, I have never witnessed such a fantastical wave of gossip, speculation or innuendo as now. So, I can appreciate that maybe – just maybe – the FM’s stress on an imminent (but wholly implausible) legal referendum could be designed to keep the membership, and the wider movement, focused on real politics.

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If so, it’s not working. For the simple reason that the stress and strain of government at Holyrood is cutting across the need to give the grassroots Yes movement direct leadership. The mass movement for Scottish self-determination has – although we are only just realising it – outgrown the guidance of any one particular political party and its unavoidable electoral calculations.

Of course, it is ABC that negotiating formal independence will require political parties and that the SNP is hegemonic on the electoral terrain. But we are witnessing the limits that arise when the First Minister tries to combine her government role with directing a mass, popular movement for independence that flows well beyond the boundaries of the SNP itself.

Which is why the moment has come to contemplate a separate umbrella structure to lead and coordinate the civic independence movement. A model already exists in the Catalan National Assembly (ANC) whose massive, peaceful demonstrations have mobilised the entire Catalan nation.

The National: Catalan independence supporters wave a 'estelada' ( pro-independence Catalan flag ) celebrate at the ANC ( Catalan National Assembly ) headquarters after results of the regional elections in Barcelona, Spain, Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017. The pro-seces

The ANC is a grassroots body that brings together 80,000 members, who in turn organise millions at a neighbourhood level. The ANC works from the bottom up to allow every member to find their own voluntary role.

It is politically independent and entirely financed by membership subscriptions. Elected politicians are not allowed to take up leadership positions. The ANC is managed day-to-day by a secretariat of 77 members chosen by the entire membership. This secretariat coordinates local and sectoral assemblies – more than 500 exist.

Note: this is a different model from the existing Scottish Independence Convention (SIC) which is a stakeholder body involving political parties (SNP, Scottish Greens, SSP); supportive organisations such as Women for Independence, Common Weal and Business for Scotland; and representatives of local indy groups.

Unfortunately, despite a lot of goodwill, SIC’s federal structure has proven too bureaucratic and too limited by the dominance of the SNP leadership. What we require is a body that reflects the movement’s grass roots and which has the autonomy and own financial resources to campaign permanently. A Scottish equivalent of the ANC could emerge through agreement by existing bodies such as All Under One Banner and local Yes groups.

Alternatively, the various pro-indy organisations could convene a national assembly to draw up statutes and elect a secretariat. Regardless of how it is done, the initiative needs to be taken soon, to allow the movement to acquire the necessary autonomy.

Of course, organisation must lead to action – but the correct action. Just as I worry that the FM is confusing the movement by punting a bogus 2020 referendum, I’m also concerned that others (the admirable Joanna Cherry) are pointing in an equally uncertain direction. The latter wants to manoeuvre the Tory Government into the law courts and force it to challenge Scotland’s right to hold a “consultative” (as opposed to legally binding) second referendum. I’m not against this in principle but I always worry when doorstep argument is subordinated to lawyers yabbering.

Unconvinced folk will only covert to Yes when challenged in their own kitchens by their own neighbours, Catalan-style. Which is why a grassroots indy campaign, controlled by the grassroots, is the key to victory. It might even give away toy Scottie Dogs, though I doubt it.