Scottish nationalists should be celebrating this week. Some 3,000 delegates from across the country will attend the annual Scottish National Party (SNP) conference, which begins in Glasgow on Thursday. The SNP is firmly established as the party of government in devolved Scottish parliament. In June, Scottish voters – like their First Minister Nicola Sturgeon – strongly backed remaining in the European Union.
And yet the nationalist dream of Scottish independence remains elusive. In 2014, 55 per cent of voters opted to stay in the United Kingdom. Despite Brexit – and the emergence of a more hard-line British Prime Minister in former Home Secretary Theresa May – most Scots still support the union.
This is the conundrum that faces Sturgeon as she prepares for arguably the most important conference speech of her political career. To hold a second referendum before the UK formally leaves the EU, or to wait?
Back in June, another vote on Scottish independence looked inevitable. In the wake of the UK’s decision to leave the EU – which 62 per cent of Scots opposed – Sturgeon declared that a referendum was “highly likely” to protect Scotland’s interests in Europe.
Since then, the Scottish National Party – in power in the devolved parliament in Edinburgh for almost a decade – has kept up a steady drumbeat for independence.
In September, the nationalists unveiled a new “conversation” to build support for leaving the UK, including a plan for the party’s 125,000 members to approach two million Scots to assuage their fears about leaving the UK.
Public confidence betrays private concerns about the prospects of winning a second referendum, at least in the short term.
A “growth commission” will be established to answer the economic questions – most notably on currency – that dogged the “yes” campaign in 2014.
In a UK wracked by uncertainty over Brexit, the SNP has positioned itself as the party with a plan.
“We want to build, if we can, a consensus on the way forward,” Sturgeon said of independence recently.
But such public confidence betrays private concerns about the prospects of winning a second referendum, at least in the short term.
Economically, Scotland is in a far weaker position than in 2014. Oil revenues have collapsed amid a global price war: Tax receipts from the North Sea have fallen from over £11bn in 2011-12 to just £60m last year.
Scotland’s deficit – the difference between what the government raises in tax and what it spends – has spiraled to 9.5 per cent of GDP. The overall figure for the UK is 4 percent.
The financial fundamentals are not the only problem. Brexit potentially raises more questions than it answers for nationalists.
Customs posts along the 96-mile Anglo-Irish border are unlikely, but with Scotland doing more than 60 percent of its trade with England any disruption to business could have huge economic impact. What currency an independent Scotland would use remains a mystery.
The Scottish public mood has shifted, too. When Nicola Sturgeon declared “we do not want to leave the European Union” on the morning of the Brexit vote her strident tone captured the dominant attitude.
Among those most aggrieved at the unexpected prospect of exiting the EU were the middle-class, cosmopolitan elite who backed the union last time out.
Anger about being dragged out of the European Union has not completely dissipated, but it has subsided. Many Scots are suffering political fatigue after more than half a dozen major elections in the past five years.
The SNP leadership still hopes for a third way between Brexit and another referendum which, if lost, could decimate their hopes of independence.
Sturgeon has said she wants to be part of Brexit negotiations, and has identified freedom of movement and access to the single market as “redline” issues.
But prospects of any acquiescence to Scottish nationalist demands seem somewhere between slim and non-existent. Last week at the Conservative party conference Prime Minister May said that there would be “no opt-out” from Brexit.
Unlike her modernising predecessor David Cameron, May has sided strongly with the right of the Tory party. Her message is bluntly British nationalist: last week she told Conservative activists that she would “never allow divisive nationalists to undermine the precious union“.
Such language goes down well in England, but will win few hearts and minds in Scotland where the government holds just one of the 59 Westminster seats. With the SNP still polling around 50 percent, their dominance of Scottish politics seems assured, at least for the next electoral cycle.
But while Scottish resentment with the London government looks set to grow even further, fears about the costs of leaving are likely to keep the UK intact, for now.
Far from the unified kingdom that Theresa May speaks of, the UK increasingly resembles a “zombie union” bound together by economic necessity. Such a loveless, listless marriage has little long-term future, but could still endure for many years yet.
Peter Geoghegan is an Irish writer and broadcaster based in Glasgow. His most recent book is The People’s Referendum: Why Scotland Will Never Be the Same Again.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.