SINCE they’re gathered in Glasgow today to hear the First Minister’s conference speech, it seems a good time to ask a question of the SNP leadership.

First, the context. Westminster is in chaos, the two big UK parties engulfed by self-indulgent psychodramas and led by people who are either intellectual or moral pygmies and sometimes both; the electorate is, rightly, appalled by the crummy quality of what’s on offer and levels of trust in the traditional elites are at depths only detectable by sonar; Scotland, despite its fervent opposition, is being dragged out of the EU, the most profound and controversial political upheaval in Britain since the Second World War; the two most impressive party leaders in these islands both earn their crust at Holyrood rather than in London; a lot of the time Scotland already feels like it’s a separate country – our national debate has textures and contours that are all its own.

Now the question: why isn’t independence a winning idea? It can’t just be about the football team.

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Here’s the answer I would give. The blame doesn’t lie with the basic concept, or with Scots being 90-minute patriots, or even with mainstream media sceptics like me, but rather with a massive, ongoing strategic failure on the SNP’s part. I wonder whether, in the years ahead, once the dust has settled on the 2014 vote, Alex Salmond might come to be seen by pro-independence types less as a cocky hero who deserves a statue and more as a vain villain with much to answer for.

It was Mr Salmond’s strategy, his tactics and his temperament that defined the 2014 campaign and the years leading up to it. He deliberately stoked the extremes, exploited the newly politically awakened, divided previously unified Scots into “us” and “them”, and made independence into a raging revolt against the mythical demons of Westminster. Mr Salmond is a political brawler whose long career has been a series of aggressive confrontations – how could the referendum be anything else?

Nothing proves this more than the White Paper produced by his Scottish Government. It was something approaching PR puffery, a national insult, fussy yet vapid, a “will this do” effort to which the only appropriate response was”‘are you kidding me?” Looking at it now, in all its Sunday League corpulence, it’s hard to know what the point of it was. The unconvinced will not have found it persuasive. On the tough and therefore important questions – the ones that left Mr Salmond so humiliatingly exposed during the campaign – it contained either fantastical proposals that fell apart at first contact with reality or simply skirted the detail.

Those attending this week’s Natfest will naturally dismiss a new poll published by Scotland in Union, the pro-UK pressure group. But they should pay attention. YouGov found that 48 per cent of Scots believe the economic forecasts made by the SNP in 2014 were “a misrepresentation to increase support for independence”, compared to 28 per cent who thought they were fair. Forty-five per cent thought they and their family would now be worse off financially if there had been a Yes vote, compared to 21 per cent who thought they’d be better off.

Nicola Sturgeon’s call for a second referendum in the wake of the Brexit vote infuriated large parts of the electorate, who consequently chopped the SNP’s group of MPs from 56 down to 35 in June’s General Election. Polls now show Holyrood is on course to lose its pro-independence majority in the 2021 devolved election. This is despite the fact that 72 per cent of Scots are pessimistic about how the Brexit negotiations are going, 59 per cent believe the UK is wrong to leave the EU, and 57 per cent are pessimistic about Britain’s future after leaving the EU. If, faced with all these numbers, you think a second independence referendum is winnable, I politely suggest you return your political antennae to Radio Rentals.

Here’s my view. Barring a dramatic shift in public opinion, the Nats would be bonkers to go for another vote, and Westminster would be entitled to refuse them. Come 2021, the SNP would benefit from a period in opposition where it could do the rethinking of independence policy that is so blatantly needed while cut loose from the strains and stains of government.

In short, the party needs to calm down. When and why did independence become a sprint and not a marathon? Why is a famously patient movement now so impatient? Is this twitchiness helping? The separatist movement seems trapped rather than liberated by the close call of 2014.

Next Generation Nationalism needs to jettison in their entirety the Salmond worldview and tactics, now little more than barriers to progress. Enough with the London bad/Scotland good nonsense: it’s true that Westminster is a dysfunctional throwback, but so are many long-established seats of government. Holyrood can anyway hardly claim to be a paragon of radicalism and policy innovation, or to be packed with the nation’s brightest and best. On the Andrew Marr programme at the weekend Ms Sturgeon defended herself (often fairly, I thought) against accusations of policy failure by insisting government is a work in progress. But would she extend the same generosity of spirit to her counterparts in Whitehall? If not, why not? You can’t have it both ways.

Next Gen Nats must rethink the independence strategy from the ground up. First, point the way by making devolved government work for parents, patients and the taxpayer. Next, reclaim the concept from the radicals who have contaminated it with their blather –make it a big, mainstream, centrist project. Then, detach the offer of independence from EU membership, from getting rid of nuclear weapons and all the other leftist symbols that can only put off those who think Scotland should stay out of the EU, or continue to host Trident, or are of a free-market disposition. These are decisions for the citizens of the new state to take.

Ms Sturgeon, as she speaks today, represents the end of something old rather than the beginning of something new. Independence and even a second referendum currently seem unlikely to fall within her span of leadership. The option then is to be a bridge to the future, even if that journey would be completed by others.