Scotland politics

What happened to the SNP's summer independence drive?

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Media captionNicola Sturgeon received huge applause from the SNP conference when she announced the drive in March

The SNP's initiative to listen to concerns on independence - and persuade doubters - has just come to an end. Initially announced by Nicola Sturgeon back in March, most of the work has been happening out of the public eye. So what's been going on?

"This summer, the SNP will embark on a new initiative to build support for independence."

Those were the words spoken by SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon at her party's conference in March.

It attracted by far the biggest reaction from the faithful gathered in Glasgow.

Independence, perhaps unsurprisingly, is the issue that excites many in the SNP the most.

Ms Sturgeon pledged a listening exercise - not to browbeat opponents of independence but to listen, to evolve their arguments and ultimately to convince.

What since?

Eight months on - lots has happened in the political world.

Ms Sturgeon's party won the election - but fell short of a majority. And the Brexit vote has turned the constitutional debate on its head.

The vote to leave the EU, some think, has changed the politics of independence. At the moment it's unclear what Brexit will look like, they say, so it's hard to figure out what people's concerns and aspirations are on independence.

But what became of the SNP's summer drive? Has it been worthwhile?

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Ms Sturgeon launched a national survey in September

Ms Sturgeon's predecessor in the party's top job thinks so.

"I think the numbers of people consulted will indicate that, I know from my own area it's been a highly effective exercise," says Alex Salmond.

Along with other MPs and MSPs he's been hosting town hall meetings, speaking to those interested in the independence case.

'Enormous benefit'

Some politicians say they attracted dozens. One MP told me though that some of the gatherings were largely a process of preaching to the converted.

Mr Salmond adds nonetheless: "The information collected, the views of people expressed to canvassers will be of enormous benefit in future political events".

He's referring to the national survey - launched by Ms Sturgeon in September - which closed last night.

It was a questionnaire, seeking answers on attitudes to the independence question, as well as other burning political issues.

On a scale or one to ten, people were asked how important issues like Scottishness, the EU, pensions and defence were to them.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Experts say data could be important in another independence campaign

The party is pleased with how the exercise has gone - a source says they're confident the two million response target set in September will be met (note: this doesn't necessarily mean two million people, but two million completed forms).

The SNP currently has no plans to publish what they've found out. But experts say the information could be very useful to the party.

"If they have managed to achieve somewhere in the region of two million completes, that's a phenomenal achievement and that data is going to be incredibly valuable to driving their campaign," says Alexander Nix.

If there's such a thing as celebrity in the world of political analytics, it's currently being enjoyed by his company.

Cambridge Analytica advised Donald Trump's team ahead of the US Presidential election, providing information on voters and their concerns.

'Targeted communication'

They say analysis of responses helped them identify potential supporters and speak to them on the issues they cared about - essentially individually-targeted political messaging.

Cambridge Analytica isn't involved in the national survey.

But more generally, Mr Nix says: "If they have that much data, if they've gathered that much data, they can begin to break down that homogenous mass of voters into individual constituents or groups of constituents, and that's going to allow them to be much more targeted in the way they communicate with their audiences."

A tailor-made case for independence could be coming your way.

But the SNP isn't the only group working to boost support for independence.

Cat Boyd is from the Radical Independence Campaign. She's happy to leave the survey to the SNP, but thinks her case will be made elsewhere.

"One of the key areas in convincing people to vote yes [to independence] has to be in people's workplaces, we have to be talking about what people do on a day-to-day basis, how their lives are being impacted by austerity and by governments they didn't vote."

Polling evidence suggests most still oppose independence - including after the Brexit vote.

The SNP's political opponents think the first minister might have overplayed her hand.

'No public interest'

"Nicola Sturgeon marched her troops up the top of the hill, expecting to have this great crusade for independence in the wake of the Brexit vote," says the Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser.

"What she's found is there's absolutely no public interest or enthusiasm for a second independence referendum".

He continues: "I think Nicola Sturgeon's now got the problem of trying to persuade all her troops independence needs to be on the back burner for many years to come."

There's no sign yet that the debate is going to vanish from public discourse.

And if the question is asked again - all that information may allow a much more personal approach.