Indyref2: Nicola Sturgeon's autumn manoeuvre

Nicola Sturgeon Image copyright PA
Image caption The SNP are hoping to gather the views of two million Scots via their 120,000 members

In the end, it is less of a summer campaign, more of an autumn manoeuvre. But, either way, Nicola Sturgeon is advancing the cause of independence once more.

Once more? She never stopped. But this is a specific initiative designed to persuade and cajole. Or, more precisely, to listen and heed.

Listening to Ms Sturgeon's speech in Stirling today, I was struck by how frequently she matched a comment designed to promote independence with one intended to stress that securing the prize for the SNP would take hard work as well as zeal.

For example, she lampooned supporters of the Union for seizing upon the Scottish deficit figures announced last week. Those, she said, were evidence of the problems in the Scottish economy under the union, not a condemnation of independence.

So much, so familiar. But she immediately struck a different note, arguing that the SNP required to demonstrate more convincingly how they would repair Scotland's economic woes. In which regard, she announced the creation of a Growth Commission, to be chaired by former MSP Andrew Wilson.

Ms Sturgeon went further, indeed, noting that independence would present "its own challenges and complexities." Language, perhaps, that of itself signals a potential change from the approach adopted by the SNP and the Scottish government in the 2014 plebiscite.

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Media captionThe first minister said it was right to keep the option of independence on the table

SNP strategists believe that folk are in the mood for frankness at a period of post Brexit vote uncertainty. Accompanying enthusiasm for the party's favoured solution with frankness about the potential problems. The "hard bit", as she put it.

Ms Sturgeon - and her predecessor Alex Salmond - have repeatedly argued that the independence cause requires more, much more than SNP fervour. Both believe that, if zeal were enough, Scotland would have been independent decades ago.

So the FM's message today - as at the March conference when she first signalled the summer campaign - was that the advocates of independence must patiently answer the concerns and worries of voters. They must listen, not lecture.

Tentative manoeuvre

Which is why I categorise today's announcement as a manoeuvre. It is emphatically not an immediate gung-ho propaganda push for independence.

It is not the starting pistol on a new referendum campaign. It is not the comprehensive rewriting of the independence White Paper. For one thing, this is a party initiative, not a government one. Rather, it is tentatively preparing the ground, should a referendum be sought and attempted.

Ms Sturgeon is cautious about a referendum. She wonders whether folk will heed the argument advanced by the Conservatives and others that indyref2 would simply pile problems upon existing uncertainty.

Yes, the SNP can say that it was the Tories who created the challenge by calling an EU referendum. But that is fighting a past battle, rather than addressing voters' contemporary concerns. So she ponders the public mood.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Many grassroots independence supporters are already pushing for a second referendum

Secondly, those "challenges and complexities". For which, one might read: the deficit and the low oil price.

Untrammelled, I do not believe that Ms Sturgeon would be contemplating indyref2 at this stage. But events have moved on.

Hence today's preparatory moves. Will there be a notably early indyref2? I think not. One, those "challenges".

Two, it will be important to discern the emerging shape of the Brexit deal. If there is to be a further plebiscite on independence, it will be based upon the new choice in politics. Between independence, albeit with amended policies on matters such as currency, and the UK outwith the EU.

For that choice to be at all meaningful, it would require to counterbalance the SNP/Scottish government offer with Brexit reality, whether hard or soft.

For now, Ms Sturgeon is adamant that she will seek to protect Scotland's European interests within the framework of the UK, within UK-led negotiations.

Her rivals say that is bogus, that her objective remains solely independence, that she is willing the Brexit negotiations to fail. They say, again, that indyref2 is unwanted and unwarranted.

Ms Sturgeon, naturally, dissents. But, to be clear, she has yet to delineate precisely when it might happen. Precision is, understandably, a rare commodity in these confusing times.

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