I'm sure by now we're all aware of the mood music which appears (I only say appears) intended to prepare the ground for an announcement by Nicola Sturgeon over the coming days that might water down or reverse the commitment to an independence referendum at the end of the Brexit process. As that announcement has not yet been made, though, we appear to be in a period of "speak now or forever hold your peace", so that's what I'm going to do. Personally, I believe it would be a historic error for the SNP to turn its back on a referendum during the period of the current Holyrood parliament. Here are the reasons -
1) You can't march people to the top of the hill, march them straight back down again, and expect that not to have consequences. It's only three months since Nicola Sturgeon announced a firm plan for an independence referendum, and indeed launched a fundraising drive which if memory serves me right collected a six-figure sum. We were told that the mandate for a referendum had already been secured, and that winning a majority of Scottish seats at the general election (30 or more) would reinforce that mandate even further. That was duly achieved on Thursday. If the whole thing is now shelved for no easily defensible reason, many people who contributed (either financially, or by registering their support on the website, or even by voting SNP on Thursday) will feel betrayed. Not everyone, by any means - others will always trust the leadership to make decisions that eventually get Scotland to the intended destination. But a great many will turn their backs on the SNP, and either give up on the independence movement altogether, or seek an alternative party/organisation (however fringe) that retains the commitment to a referendum within the intended timescale. They'll think to themselves : "if we can't trust the SNP to stick to their principles when they win an election, how can we trust them to see it through when the going really gets tough?" It's all very well clinging to the dubious hope that ditching a referendum might stop scaring the horses in rural Aberdeenshire, but if you lose a fair bit of your most passionate support base in the process, it's doubtful whether that constitutes progress.
2) It would be democratically indefensible to capitulate to the argument that the Scottish Tories "won" this election on a pledge to stop a referendum, and that the SNP "lost" the election on the pledge to hold a referendum. I'm sure I don't need to reiterate the numbers, but the SNP won roughly 60% of the seats in Scotland, and the Tories took fewer than one-quarter. What I would have expected the leadership to say is something along the lines of : "We've suffered some very painful losses tonight and ended up with a mandate that is smaller than the huge one we secured in 2015, but nevertheless it is still a very, very clear mandate. In many ways it's a more valuable mandate than our previous one because it was hard-won in the full public knowledge that we were planning a referendum. It must now be fully respected." Instead, they gave a degree of comfort to the argument of the Tories and other unionist parties that Scotland was somehow voting against a referendum by not giving the SNP a big enough majority - effectively arguing that anti-referendum votes and seats carry far more weight than pro-independence votes and seats. That attitude voluntarily surrenders the victory won and converts it into a defeat. Again, I can't think of a quicker way of alienating your core support than to tell them that even if they vote for a manifesto in good faith and help deliver a thumping win, it still counts for absolutely nothing.
I'm also very troubled that Nicola Sturgeon reportedly agreed that there was some "force" to the argument that unionist parties had outpolled the SNP on the popular vote. It is completely unrealistic to expect a single party to routinely receive 50% of the vote - it very rarely happens in any established democracy (South Africa being an obvious exception). In Westminster elections, Scotland effectively reverts to being a four-party system in which three parties are anti-independence and only one is pro-independence. It's obvious that in most cases the most popular party will be outpolled by the combined votes for the other three - that's completely normal.
3) The problem in this election campaign has been wrongly diagnosed. What seems to be behind the talk of a change in policy is the discovery that some people on the doorstep were 'scunnered' by the plan for another referendum. But that's to fall into the Ed Miliband trap of thinking that just removing policies that annoy certain people will somehow help you win more votes. You actually have to give people something positive to vote for - or, if you're Ruth Davidson, give them a really scary bogey-man to vote against. After the disappointing result in the local elections, I suggested that the SNP needed to urgently fire up the pro-independence vote in the same way that the Tories (and to a lesser extent Labour and the Lib Dems) had already fired up the anti-independence vote. There was no point in playing it safe - the genie was out of the bottle, the election was going to be dominated by the constitution whether we liked it or not, so we might as well make a virtue out of necessity. Instead, the opposite was done, and we ended up with a campaign that struck me as being remarkably similar to the campaign in 2005 that won only six seats - lots of talk of "strong voices standing up for Scotland", but no convincing explanation of what that would actually achieve in concrete terms. One of the few times I found myself nodding along to a BBC attack line against the SNP was when Glenn Campbell asked Nicola Sturgeon what a large SNP contingent at Westminster could possibly achieve in a parliament with a large Tory majority, given their relative powerlessness in a parliament over the last couple of years that had a small Tory majority. Her response was to point to examples of the influence they've had - which almost seemed to be saying "vote SNP for more of the same at Westminster". That was scarcely likely to inspire anyone.
2015 was an unusual case because everyone thought they knew that the SNP were going to hold the balance of power, so it wasn't implausible to talk about making a real difference at Westminster. But this time, ironically, hardly anyone believed we were heading for a hung parliament, so the "strong voices" pitch was never likely to resonate.
4) Ditching the referendum will not actually make the "referendum problem" go away. If anyone thinks Ruth Davidson is ever going to stop running on the "stop a referendum" line, they are deluding themselves. You could see it as soon as Nicola Sturgeon said she would "reflect" on the election result - Davidson immediately said that wasn't enough, and that the referendum had to be taken off the table completely. If it actually is taken off the table completely, Davidson will then say that still isn't enough, because until the SNP drop their support for independence altogether, that means they are still secretly planning to hold a referendum, and people have to vote Tory to stop the secret plans for a referendum. This will literally never end. You can't beat Davidson by appeasing her. It just won't work.
5) Abandoning the referendum would be a betrayal of EU citizens who have put their faith in the SNP and the wider Yes movement to preserve their current status in Scotland. Holding an indyref at the end of the Brexit process is first and foremost not a strategic call, it's a moral imperative. It's the only way to give the people of Scotland (whatever their country of origin) an opportunity to retain their right to free movement and remain within the single market. That basic principle has not changed in the slightest. For all the wild talk about how the loss of the Tory majority might lead to a watering down of the plans for Hard Brexit, the simple fact is that both the Conservatives and the Labour party are opposed to the continuation of free movement, so remaining within the single market as part of the UK still appears to be a complete non-starter.
6) If the SNP put independence on the backburner specifically to concentrate on the "day-job" (again, framing it in that way is a capitulation to the Tories' attack lines), they're putting all their eggs in the basket of being viewed as more competent than their opponents for an indefinite period. That would seem to be wildly optimistic given what we know about the inevitable changing of the seasons in politics. If by 2021 Scottish Labour get their act together and put forward a radical Corbynite manifesto for Holyrood, and if the Tories are still banging on about "stopping Nicola Sturgeon's secret plans for a referendum", and if the SNP have parked their USP and are instead pitching for votes as the most competent managers after fourteen years in office, that would strike me as an obvious recipe for a unionist majority to be elected. It wouldn't necessarily lead to Davidson or Dugdale as First Minister, but the Sturgeon government would be dramatically weakened. The SNP would then presumably go off and "reflect" on the setback - and perhaps reach precisely the wrong conclusions all over again.