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Scottish nationalists strong on endurance for long road to independence

Scotland's nationalists say their cause is as relevant as ever. They're carefully taking steps to ensure the next campaign for independence from Britain results in a "yes." Peter Geoghegan reports from Glasgow.

In the past, the Scottish National Party frequently held their conference in small Scottish towns. Dunoon, Oban, even tiny Rothesay (population 4,850) on the isle of Bute hosted the nationalists' tartan bedecked annual gathering in years bygone.

How times have changed. This week the SNP meets at the sleek surroundings of the vast Aberdeen Exhibition and Conference Centre. Unlike many political get-togethers, tickets have been hard to come by - the Scottish nationalists now have more than 110,000 members, a more than fourfold increase since a 10-point defeat in last September's independence referendum.

In Aberdeen, there will be no formal debate about another vote on leaving the three centuries union with England - despite attempts by rank-and-file members to put it on the agenda - but the question of independence will be uppermost on many delegates' minds.

Scottish First Minister and SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has come under pressure to include a commitment to a second referendum on the party's manifesto for next year's Scottish parliament elections as recent polls have shown growing support for going it alone.

Nicola Sturgeon

Sturgeon is cautious about calling for a new referendum

"I don't think the appetite of people who voted for independence has been diminished," says Natalie McGarry.

A year ago McGarry was a youthful SNP activist, now she is one of 56 MPs elected to Westminster in May under the SNP banner after the nationalists won a stunning victory in the UK general election, taking all but three of the seats in Scotland.

"[Independence] remains very much on the agenda, but at the same time we have to respect that we had a democratic vote last time and we lost," says McGarry.

Taking it slow

The SNP has long adopted a "gradualist" strategy for independence, slowly building electoral support while increasing the powers available to the devolved parliament in Edinburgh. Another referendum is highly unlikely until the nationalists believe they can win.

Sturgeon has said that only a "material change" in Scotland's constitutional position - such as the UK voting to leave the European Union in a referendum slated to take place before the end of 2017 - could trigger a referendum in the short term, but has steadfastly refused to rule out a second vote.

McGarry agrees.

"Something has to change fundamentally so that the constitutional conditions are not the same as they were when we tested them last year." But, she says, the Conservative government in Westminster, which has very little support in Scotland, "is doing things that could give rise to another referendum."

Another vote on independence will depend on the SNP winning an unprecedented successive majority in the Scottish parliament in elections next year. The nationalists are riding high in the polls, despite some recent travails, including the resignation of one MP, Michelle Thomson, from the party following questions about her business dealings.

That such negative headlines have done little to dent the SNP support attests to the fundamental shift in Scottish politics in the wake of last year's referendum. The nationalists have seen its support surge, largely at the expense of the once-dominant Labour party.

Beyond party alliegiance

"The independence referendum of 2014 was the most transformative political moment in Scotland in 300 years," says political commentator Iain Macwhirter. "It marked the beginning of the end of the Union of 1707, the consolidation of a distinct Scottish political culture, the end of Labour's political dominance of Scotland."

For the SNP the transformation has been profound. The party was founded in 1934 as the result of a merger between two minor parties, the National Party of Scotland and the Scottish Party. In the following year's UK general election, the new party contested eight seats and won none.

For decades, the nationalists struggled to gain a toehold in Scottish politics. Then, in 1967, the SNP shocked the political establishment by winning a by-election in the nominally safe Labour seat of Hamilton.

An oil platform in the North Sea

Scottish Nationalists have tried to use North Sea oil as a rallying cry

During the 1970s, campaigning under a slogan of "It's Scotland's Oil," the SNP sought to exploit the newly discovered North Sea oil reserves as the basis for independence. But the party struggled to make sustained electoral inroads.

The creation of a devolved Scottish parliament in 1997 proved a turning point in SNP fortunes. The party first won a minority administration in 2007 devolved elections. Then, in 2011, the nationalists achieved the seemingly impossible, an absolute majority in the Holyrood parliament, and, with it, the chance to realize the long-held dream of a vote on independence.

While some of the newly motivated SNP members long for another referendum as soon as possible, some nationalists realize that before another vote they need to address the economic concerns that undermined their pitch for a "yes" last September.

Former SNP communications chief Kevin Pringle said recently that "a more balanced approach to discussing Scotland's strengths and weaknesses" was needed in any second referendum campaign.

Nevertheless, unionists, particularly outside of Scotland, have been slow to recognize the danger still posed by Scottish independence. A commission established immediately after the referendum has recommended a raft of new powers for the Edinburgh parliament, but many Scots feel the new levers do not go far enough.

When it comes to another independence referendum, Nicola Sturgeon "has effectively fired the starting gun on another five- or six-year campaign" says Scottish journalist David Torrance. "Unless her opponents get their acts together soon, in future it could well be viewed as a decisive moment."

More than a year on from the referendum, Scottish nationalism is in rude health, says Natalie McGarry. "The movement transcends party politics. People want to belong to something that gives them a voice."

In Aberdeen this week many nationalists will use that voice to call for another vote on independence - managing that demand could prove the Scottish National Party's toughest test yet.

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