OVER the past few weeks, this column has concentrated on directing its political fire at the Tory Government at Westminster or undermining bogus arguments for retaining the shoogly United Kingdom. I’ve had no heart to join in the civil war loosely (and erroneously) referred to as the “Sturgeon-Salmond Affair”.

However, the first fruits of the internal nationalist feuding have now appeared, with the inevitable wobble in the opinion polls. I’m not despairing – yet. Volatile polls are a part of nature. Besides, the fact that people can’t make up their mind whether they want the Union to continue is hardly good news for anyone lurking in the fabulously redecorated Downing Street bunker.

But it is time for the movement to take stock or we risk throwing away independence. My take is that the FM has parried the blows ranged against her – for now. Some in the movement who want her gone will feel disappointed. But calls to remove Sturgeon were always adventurist this side of the May election.

Others will feel elated the FM “has won”. This triumphalism is misplaced. Deep divisions remain inside the movement. Both factions need to consider where they stand.

The way forward centres not on who leads the SNP but on policy direction. As a matter of fact, there’s not really a cigarette paper between Sturgeon and Salmond on most issues. There’s the rub. If the indy movement is to recover ground, it means tackling at least five serious policy issues that go well beyond arguments about whether there was a conspiracy against Salmond or whether there is a Trumpian plot to do down the FM.

Issue #1: A cult of personality has crept into indy politics as a result of the Sturgeon-Salmond battle. I’ve known Nicola Sturgeon for a quarter of a century and value her ability to connect empathetically with a mass audience. But focussing the case for independence on her alone goes against the democratic grain of everything the national movement has stood for. Besides, all political heroes have clay feet.

Equally (and I mean equally) the “bring back Alex” slogan is delusional. Only Frank Sinatra could keep on coming back because folk still enjoyed his old songs. But today’s young indy supporters don’t know who Alex Salmond is. Bottom line: Perhaps we in Scotland need to rethink the very notion of having iconic leaders and replace it with bottom-up democracy. Or is that too revolutionary?

Issue #2: Politics in Scotland has become far too centralised and secretive. Every journalist in Scotland knows how secretive the SNP Government has become – and I am not just referring to the current committee investigation of the handling of the Salmond case, though that has reinforced this dubious trend. The SNP spent most of its political history championing decentralised government. But since taking power in 2007 (and under both Salmond and Sturgeon) it has pursued a ruthlessly centralising agenda, abandoning long cherished policies such as handing more power and financial control to local authorities.

The drift towards governmental centralisation and bureaucratic secrecy has understandable roots: the need to cut costs amid Westminster imposed austerity and a desire to resist a hostile Unionist media. But the longer indy is delayed, the more the SNP Government’s slide into bureaucracy eats away at our democratic credentials. Making a cult figure of the FM only serves to hide this growing political canker. Time for more open government at Holyrood.

Issue #3: The decay of inner-party democracy in the SNP. The party were once one of the most democratic of institutions, bound by a common cause. That has long gone. Since the 2016 Brexit vote much of the SNP rank and file has grown frustrated at the on-off approach of the leadership towards pressing the case of indyref2.

THE leadership has responded by closing down debate on strategy at party conferences. A section of the membership responded in November 2020 by electing dissidents to the National Executive. The leadership has responded with bureaucratic manoeuvres that have neutered opposition on the Executive, leading to a flurry of resignations.

Some will see this as par for the course in any mature political party balancing power in office with the zeal of rank-and-file purists.

But the SNP is not a normal political party, it is a mass movement directed at winning national self-determination. Without the movement, the SNP as an electoral machine will wither and die. Unless the SNP leadership maintains a healthy democratic dialogue with its base, the sort of internal friction we have seen lately will only intensify. We could start by making party officers genuinely the servants of the membership.

Issue #4: Lack of an agreed policy direction for gaining independence. The nub of the division inside the independence movement has nothing to do with the Salmond-Sturgeon question or Salmond’s personal behaviour. Simply put, the SNP leadership believes that independence can only be secured through a referendum agreed in advance by the UK Government, in order to secure international legitimacy.

This strategy, of course, surrenders Scottish sovereignty to the whim of Westminster – which is why it is unpopular with a lot of the indy grassroots. It also runs the risk that Westminster may never agree.

Unnecessarily, this divide has been widened by the contemptuous attitude of some in the SNP leadership to anyone rejecting their gradualist viewpoint. Yet a strategy based solely on “surely Boris will succumb to democratic pressures” is a mite tenuous. The leadership has responded with obfuscation. Ian Blackford says there “could be” a referendum this year. So there “could” – and pigs might fly over Holyrood. Ian’s dog-whistle may get us past the May election, but it fools nobody.

I favour turning the Scottish Parliament election into a plebiscite on independence, but I doubt if the leadership will accept such a move. So how to unite the differing perspectives? One way would be to establish a commission to prepare a roster of actions to ramp up pressure on the Tories to agree a Section 30 order. That might include withdrawing MPs from Westminster and mass civil disobedience (starting with non-payment of the BBC licence fee). My point is that the SNP leadership can’t forbid discussion on upping the ante on Westminster forever.

Issue #5: Lack of policy preparation for independence. Everyone (even Andrew Wilson) agrees that the pandemic has rendered the Sustainable Growth Commission report obsolete as a guide to post-independence policy prescriptions.

If we were to have Ian Blackford’s phantom autumn referendum, the independence movement would lack answers to any of the key economic questions – on currency, fiscal strategy and investment. Which is why we need to re-open discussion on a Scottish currency immediately.

Inevitably, most of my policy suggestions are aimed at the SNP Government. But the dissident wing of the movement cannot escape the need to rethink its present direction. The project to garner an indy super-majority via the regional list system isn’t making headway, not least because there are two competing indy parties (never mind the Greens).

I’m told there have been talks aimed at agreeing a single list, but these are going nowhere. Sadly, the Unionists can always rely on inflated Scottish egos. The rest of us need something better.