October 11, 2022 - 10:15am

Reports on the tone of this week’s SNP conference, from those unfortunate enough to be there, are grim. For those of us who managed to be elsewhere, Sturgeon’s keynote speech surely encapsulates why.

In theory, the Nationalists expect to fight another independence referendum next year. If the wider ‘Yes’ movement thought for a moment this was feasible, Aberdeen would have looked like the staging ground for a conquering army.

But it didn’t, because they don’t. Year after year, Sturgeon has held her coalition together by promising the big campaign was just around the next corner. The act is running thin.

Even the First Minister can’t seem to maintain the pretence any longer. She struck a markedly sombre note on the question of independence, reminding voters that breaking away from Britain would not be an “economic miracle cure,” and that wealth will not “suddenly and magically start trickling down.” Of course, in practice independence would be a fiscal disaster.

These comments were essentially a new — and depressing — spin on Sturgeon’s economic case for independence. Which really just highlights the fact that, eight years on from the last referendum and with the full might of the Scottish Government at their disposal, the SNP still haven’t been able to produce one. 

We probably shouldn’t put our expectations for another vote too high, given that one of Sturgeon’s ministers chose this week to start talking up the nonsensical idea that what remained of the UK would continue to pay Scottish pensions in the event of independence.  

Such talk is a timely reminder that the Nationalists have been extremely fortunate to be led by two very able politicians in succession. Think about the situation she inherited when she succeeded Alex Salmond in 2014. Yes, the separatists had just lost the referendum — but they had lifted the pro-independence share of the vote up to almost half the electorate, where it has stayed.

Her unionist opponents had panicked in the closing days of the campaign and offered ‘The Vow’, needlessly opening up the charge that the ‘No’ vote had been conditional on vague promises of even more devolution. 

Tens of thousands of energetic new activists were flocking into the SNP. In 2015, they smashed Labour to win nearly every Scottish seat at Westminster (just the outcome which the UK Government used to argue, in pre-devolution days, would justify independence).

And a year after that, Brexit gave the First Minister an excuse to re-open the independence question. It also pushed a chunk of elite opinion in London to fall in behind the suddenly-fashionable cause of ‘independence in Europe’ for Scotland. That Boris Johnson was woefully unpopular north of the border was a cherry on the cake.

Yet here we are, eight long years later, and the Nationalists have gone… nowhere. Not backwards, certainly — their stranglehold on Scottish political life seems almost as strong as ever. But not forwards either. 

If Sturgeon does bow out after the next election, we might see time finally catch up with the SNP machine.

Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.