PERHAPS we should be thankful that Scotland’s return to a recognisable state of normality has come too late for the SNP’s annual party conference next month to make its return as a physical event. In recent years this gathering has come to resemble a large family re-union where the actual politics and horse-trading became secondary to the main business of catching up with old friends and securing your seat for the conference karaoke.

The atmosphere of exultant fervour which characterised the Yes campaign throughout the build-up to the 2014 independence referendum was manifest in five years of steady growth in the polls, both notional and actual. Eight comfortable triumphs across all of the UK’s electoral jurisdictions told its own story: that a mandate for a second referendum had been created and that there was unity of purpose within the main party of independence.

These Camelot days of the SNP are a distant, blue-remembered memory. What has occurred in this party since 2019 is on a Game-of-Thrones level of vengeance, but without the laughs. If next month’s conference had proceeded at a live venue with human interaction, a squad of UN peacekeepers would have been required.

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In any other party at any other time, the deep, and seemingly unbridgeable, divisions would have proved fatal in electoral terms. But while the independence question remains unresolved, Nicola Sturgeon has thus far been able to maintain her authority over the fear and loathing.

She’s been aided by several other factors: a chaotic and hard Brexit; an extremist UK Government that makes Margaret Thatcher’s tenure look enlightened; and the lamentable failure of Labour and the Tories between them to be effective in opposition at Holyrood.

That the SNP came within touching distance of an overall majority in May’s Scottish election looks like a personal vindication. Sturgeon, though, surely won’t be fooled by this. Right now, the party she leads is a deeply unpleasant place to belong.

In the SNP’s ruling National Executive Committee and in its Westminster group, an atmosphere of bullying and intimidation has been fostered in which members known to be sympathetic to Joanna Cherry have been targeted. Most of them, fearful for their livelihoods and their future prospects under the present regime, are helpless to resist.

At some meetings of the NEC around the turn of the year, certain actors specialised in simply howling open abuse at Cherry and her allies. A handful in particular had obviously regarded this as a practical means of securing a high place on the SNP electoral lists. Happily, most failed in their ultimate objective of securing a seat at Holyrood, and with it a salary well beyond their abilities in the real world.

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Alba, despite their humiliation at the polls in May, continue to attract high-level defectors from the SNP, many of whom gave their best years to the party. Since 2019, though, they have felt marginalised as the SNP have been annexed by extremists using the artifices of gender reform and hate crime legislation to effect a cultural revolution. These people care more about their bogus pronouns than an independent Scotland. That the population’s attention has been diverted by Brexit and coronavirus has aided their cause.

They also know that, thus far, they have been able to target, threaten and abuse gender-critical female members of the party in the knowledge that the leadership – at both Holyrood and Westminster – will do nothing to intervene. Once, whatever divisions existed within the SNP split along support for the left-wing ’79 group or the more moderate gradualists.

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Now, you are either pro-free speech and a gender-critical Cherry-ite or a trans activist. Thus far, these forces have been irreconcilable, an outcome not helped by the juvenile tendency of trans allies (rarely actual trans people) to dismiss traditional feminists as bigots while portraying themselves as progressive. In truth, they’re about as progressive as Neil Oliver.

THE Holyrood election results seemed to have vindicated them and shored up Nicola Sturgeon’s position as leader. Many of her opponents within the party have now gone and she is seemingly free to indulge her power base in the SNP’s scarecrow wing without fear of consequences.

A coalition pact with the Scottish Greens would strengthen her position still further. Such an agreement would also ensure five years of stable government, no matter how you might behold the prospect of a ministerial department falling into the hands of a party that hasn’t managed to win a single constituency seat in 21 years of trying.

As SNP loyalists, now re-inforced by the Greens, savour the prospect of a quarter-century of unbroken power, it remains to be seen whether the wider Yes movement will continue to overlook the perceived iniquities of the Sturgeon regime for much longer if a genuine route-map to independence doesn’t emerge from next month’s conference.

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So far they’ve been willing to thole the harrying of Joanna Cherry and the slide towards a neoliberal agenda manifest in the endless procession of corporate lobbyists to whom the SNP’s front door is always open. So long as this party looked serious about independence they would be willing to endure it all, even the whereabouts of the missing £600k.

Yet, even if a second referendum does come along any time soon, the civil strife of the last two years may yet haunt Nicola Sturgeon. The unresolved constitutional question might be sufficient to deliver a Scottish election when the campaign only lasts six weeks and you’re up against the political equivalent of Brechin City. A six-month-long referendum campaign (at least) requires all the volunteers of the wider Yes movement and their 24/7 willingness to pound the streets and organise meetings in Scotland’s most far-flung communities.

In 2014 the referendum campaign could draw on a boundless supply of cheerful goodwill. How much of that goodwill exists now?

To stand any chance of returning to that well and drawing from it, Nicola Sturgeon needs to be a leader of the entire movement once more. You can’t over-state how vital the clarity and empathy of her messaging during the pandemic has been for those rendered vulnerable by underlying health conditions.

Her interview on BBC Breakfast on Monday morning was everything Boris Johnson’s could never be –clear, concise, honest and heartfelt. It’s easy to dismiss this as mere “presentation” but those who have been menaced by Covid would call it leadership.

Another component of authentic leadership is the ability to reach out to adversaries in pursuit of a common goal greater than the pride of injured egos. The extent to which Nicola Sturgeon is willing to do this over the next few months will determine the fate of independence more than anything else.