Scottish independence: The SNP stops talking and starts listening

Nicola Sturgeon Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Ms Sturgeon launched her new "conversation" on independence at a gathering of SNP parliamentarians in Stirling

When you don't know what to say it is usually a good idea to shut up and listen. Advice many of us would probably be wise to follow on occasion. And that's exactly what Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon says she is going to do.

Today she announced the launch of a "national conversation" about Scottish independence. An initiative she says will be "Scotland's biggest ever political listening exercise".

Anyone who hoped that she would set a date for another referendum on Scottish independence may be disappointed. But Ms Sturgeon is not yet ready to commit to holding another vote.

In the immediate wake of the EU referendum she said she thought another referendum was "highly likely". But she knows she has a lot of work to do before that becomes a certainty.

Opinion polls have not moved as much as the SNP hoped after Scotland voted to stay in the EU but the rest of the UK voted to leave.

A new YouGov poll for the Times today shows support for independence at much the same level it was before the EU referendum at 46%.

Ms Sturgeon will not take a chance on holding another vote unless she is sure she can win it, and that requires sustained polling evidence that well over 50% of Scots will vote Yes.

The electorate as a whole may remain sceptical but SNP activists are excited and enthusiastic about another referendum. And there are a lot of them.

With more than 120,000 members, one in every 37 adults in Scotland belongs to the SNP. As one senior MP likes to put it - that is one party member on every double decker bus.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Ms Sturgeon is unlikely to hold a second referendum until she is confident there will be no repeat of 2014's disappointment

If they think Nicola Sturgeon is dragging her feet they may become impatient. So their party leader needs to find work for their idle hands.

That's why she is sending them out to doorsteps across Scotland to start talking about independence even if they aren't technically campaigning for it yet.

It will be useful for the party to hear voters' concerns about leaving the UK. And it will also buy some time as the party works out how to remake the case for an independent Scotland.

Brexit may present an opportunity for the SNP but it also presents new problems. It is unthinkable that the SNP could assert that Scotland would continue to use Sterling as its currency if the rUK is outside the EU and Scotland is inside.

Image copyright PA
Image caption The SNP now has more than 120,000 members

Would there have to be a hard border between Scotland and England? And what would that mean for cross border trade?

All these new issues need to be addressed as well as the basic economic case. The sharp drop in oil price has made that much harder.

If the Yes campaign failed to convince the electorate of the economic case for independence in 2014 how will they do so now that Scotland's national deficit is more than double that of the UK's and there is a £14.8bn hole in the public finances?

The SNP know they will have to make a fresh case for independence that addresses all of these questions. Launching an excercise to "listen" to the voters will give them time to work on that case.