WHENEVER Nicola Sturgeon makes the slightest mention of a second independence referendum social media goes a little mental. It’s usually the Unionist brigade who indulge in irate ramblings, but more recently I’ve noticed the madness spread to certain pro-indy supporters.

And so it was this week when The National devoted its front page to the First Minister’s predictions that there would be a second referendum before the end of 2023 and that Yes would win it. A small minority of indy supporters took to social media to post montages of National front pages which have reported the First Minister making similar predictions that indyref2 would take place from 2020 onwards.

The message was a cynical one, underlining a feeling in some sections of the movement that the SNP leader has led her troops to the top of the hill only to back away from firing the starting pistol on the indyref2 campaign. Not for the first time, I was left wondering about the motives of those seeking to stir up impatience with SNP tactics, just when they are on the verge of paying dividends.

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Let me be clear. Along with thousands of activists, I was keen to see a referendum take place in 2020. The grounds seemed perfect for the campaign, particularly since Brexit was already threatening to become the disaster which would unfold.

It was heartening to hear the First Minister raise the battle cry at The National’s rally at George Square in 2019 and signal in no uncertain terms that indyref2 would take place the following year. “A privilege to speak in a packed George Square at #indyref2020 rally. Let’s put Scotland’s future in Scotland’s hands,” she tweeted that day.

The fact that 2020 came and went without that referendum had nothing to do with SNP reluctance to press ahead with the vote and it is, at best, mischievous to blame recalcitrance.

The truth is that a referendum campaign could not possibly have been conducted while we were in the grip of Covid-19. There would have been no point in holding such a vote when lockdown prevented campaigning and so dominated the narrative that the public had little energy to devote to anything else. We would not have won such a vote had we persisted in holding it.

Of course, we were impatient to start and win a national argument on the best future for Scotland. Of course, it was hugely frustrating to watch the Westminster government mishandle the pandemic itself and put the recovery – both medical and economic – at risk through incompetence while waiting for the end of lockdown restrictions.

But from this vantage point, watching and waiting now looks to have been by far the smartest option. For the past two years, evidence has been mounting that Boris Johnson and his cronies lack the intelligence to guide us into the post-Covid world. And the moral authority to shape a Britain capable of protecting its people from the greed of those who now seek to impoverish us.

The Prime Minister and his Chancellor sit on their hands as big business pockets massive profits while simultaneously squeezing their customers for more and more cash. Yesterday, energy giant Shell reported it had made a $9.13 billion profit in the first three months of this year – nearly triple its $3.2bn profit in the same period last year.

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Earlier BP also announced soaring profits – in this case, to $6.2bn in the first three months of the year – the highest total since 2008 and more than double that for the previous year. Meanwhile, families can barely afford to put food on the table after paying spiralling fuel costs.

It has never been more clear that, far from being a self-indulgent side issue, indyref2 is more essential than it was even in 2020 to give Scotland the opportunity to fashion its own future, built on its own values.

Since the pandemic started to recede, Nicola Sturgeon has argued that the second independence referendum will take place before the end of 2023, and has not deviated from that position. This week she has continued to hold to that date, refusing to bow to Unionist warnings that the economic position and the war in Ukraine should give her pause for thought. The First Minister knows only too well that there are no conceivable problems that opponents of independence will not seize upon as evidence that a vote on independence would be foolhardy “at this time”.

The National: First Minister of Scotland and leader of the SNP Nicola Sturgeon alongside the party's campaign bus at Drumgelloch near Airdrie during campaigning for the Scottish Parliamentary election. Picture date: Tuesday May 4, 2021..

Even the most impatient of independence supporters would be hard-pushed to envisage circumstances which would make it possible to hold indyref2 before the end of 2023. So why would pro-indy supporters take to social media to cast doubt on the SNP’s good intentions at a time when the prospect of a second vote looms large – and when the movement needs to build unity rather than division?

All this is not to say the SNP is perfect, or that there are no problems looming on the horizon. The council elections yesterday are perhaps symbolic of the difficulty of the party’s position. On the one hand, it has argued that the council elections are important because SNP victories in local authorities will create stronger, better councils, able to push through better local policies. On the other, it portrays the elections as an opportunity for the electorate to send a message, emphasising its disillusionment with the UK Government in Westminster.

Of course, there is nothing to suggest that those two arguments cannot both be true at the same time. The SNP has certainly proven itself better able to run Scotland than its political opponents, and it is simultaneously true that many voters are itching to show their disapproval of Johnson and his cronies, and yesterday’s vote handed them their first opportunity to do so since recent controversies over partygate and the Sunak family fortunes.

The National: Rishi Sunak and his wife Akshata MurtyRishi Sunak and his wife Akshata Murty

However, the tension between local and national issues mirrors a tension within the SNP, which is a party of the establishment, running Scotland at national and local levels, while at the same time holding the very much anti-establishment ambition of dismantling the British state.

Since 2007, the SNP has done an excellent job of being both establishment and anti-establishment simultaneously, but a range of issues – not least those arising from the Ferguson ferries contract – threaten at some point to dent its political armour.

This week’s council elections are nevertheless widely expected to show the party’s popularity remains remarkably high after 15 years in government. During that time, it has transformed itself into an incredibly efficient election-winning machine. So much so that the party could be forgiven for asking itself … does it need a Yes movement to win the next referendum?

The reverse is certainly true. The Yes movement needs the SNP to achieve its aim. The party is the only route to achieving independence in the foreseeable future. There are other pro-indy parties, but none is even close to providing a realistic alternative to the SNP. Opinion polls are stubbornly failing to show a consistent lead for Yes, but that does not mean the pro-independence side has no realistic chance of success in a 2023 referendum.

The gap between Yes and No is much closer than it was before campaigning started for the first referendum in 2014. It is true that the Yes vote is unlikely to grow as much as it did in the lead up to 2014; it is far from unreasonable to expect a significant increase.

The arguments are stronger post-Brexit and post-Covid, and the opposition is fractured to the extent that there is unlikely to be a united Better Together front. It’s far from certain that Anas Sarwar's (below) Scottish Labour will even be able to sustain a consistent anti-inydref2 line, given the blatant anti-democratic nature of that argument and signs of unease within the ranks.

The National: Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar speaking during the Scottish Labour conference at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall. Picture date: Friday March 4, 2022. PA Photo. See PA story POLITICS ScotLabour. Photo credit should read: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire.

It seems to me that these factors underline the need for stronger links between the SNP and the Yes movement, both to recapture the positivity of 2014 and to emphasise the difference between a united pro-indy front and a splintered Unionist campaign.

In this scenario, the Yes movement brings strong advantages to the table – not least inspirational organisations such as Business for Scotland, Believe in Scotland and Women for Independence – and a network of grassroots Yes groups which are once again preparing to flex its campaigning muscles. If 2014 taught us anything, it is to expect new and exciting Yes groupings to emerge as a campaign gets going.

Now that the council elections are over, it’s time to focus all efforts on the independence campaign, with stronger bonds between the SNP and the wider movement united in a common cause. That means a zero-tolerance approach to those within the movement who prefer to snipe from the sidelines, rather than engage in the hard work necessary to win over hearts and minds. Future generations will find it hard to forgive those who put petty squabbles ahead of a genuine opportunity to win our independence.