Growing ambition: challenges for the SNP as it heads to its spring conference
As the SNP publishes the findings of its Growth Commission, how is the party faring going into its spring conference?
SNP conference crowd: Picture credit - PA
At the end of May, Nicola Sturgeon re-fired the starting gun on the debate about Scottish independence.
Almost four years after the country voted No, the SNP published the findings of its Sustainable Growth Commission, which set out the potential economics of an independent Scotland.
It was led by former MSP Andrew Wilson and the report contained 50 “ambitious and achievable” recommendations for Scotland to meet its economic potential.
The commission claimed it is “a bold prospectus designed to stimulate debate and outline policy options for Scotland in the here and now”, in the context of Brexit and with the “opportunities” of independence.
Responding to the findings, the First Minister said: “What this report shows is that Scotland is a wealthy nation with huge resources, encompassing our traditional strengths in innovation, our hi-tech sectors, our energy reserves, our food, drink and tourism strengths – and perhaps above all, our strength in human capital, with a highly educated population.
“But despite those enormous strengths, similar sized nations have performed better over decades – all of them independent but most of them with fewer resources than us.
“The task ahead is to match those other nations, creating more jobs and raising living standards, providing a better future for everyone who lives here.
“The Growth Commission is right that in order to raise our performance we must target increases in our population, ensure that all in our society are able to participate fully in the economy and drive forward improvements in our productivity that will boost our growth rates. The Scottish Government is working hard to achieve that with the powers of devolution, but as well as offering new ideas for what we can do now, this report sets out how much more could be achieved with independence.
“This report rightly doesn’t shy away from the challenges we face but presents ways in which those challenges can be addressed – and sets out recommendations on currency – which as a country we should all debate and discuss.
“Scotland is now in a very different political and economic situation to 2014. There is no status quo and we know that being taken out of Europe and out of a market around eight times bigger than the UK market alone will hit our economy. That is why it is time to begin a fresh debate and to replace the despair of Brexit with optimism about Scotland’s future.
“We look forward to debating the report’s recommendations – both within the SNP and with business, trade unions and communities across Scotland.”
Meanwhile, as the party prepares for its spring conference in Aberdeen, issues such as Brexit and questions about the party’s record in government continue to dominate the debate.
In his response to the findings of the Growth Commission, Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard said the SNP should set aside the independence question and instead focus “on fixing the growing problems in our NHS and education system”.
However, if the polls are anything to go by, the SNP is in a good position.
In February, a Survation poll of 1,000 Scots suggested the Tories would drop five seats in a Westminster election to a “resurgent” SNP.
The poll also found the SNP would take back four seats lost last year to Scottish Labour and that First Minister Nicola Sturgeon “remains on course” to steer the SNP to their fourth consecutive Holyrood election victory in 2021.
The poll put the SNP on 39 per cent, a rise of two per cent since last June’s vote. Scottish Labour was steady at 27 per cent, while the Scottish Conservatives had dropped almost five points to 24 per cent.
The SNP still also boasts a huge membership, with House of Commons figures published earlier this year putting the number of paying members at 118,200, slightly down on 120,000 following the independence referendum.
Significantly, this means the SNP is now very close to the entire UK Conservative membership figure, which stands at 124,000, and within reach of becoming the UK’s second largest party after Labour.
Another major issue for the SNP is Brexit.
Just last week, Nicola Sturgeon was in Brussels speaking to the EU’s chief negotiator, Michael Barnier, where she raised concerns over a deal that would potentially hand Northern Ireland an advantage through closer ties to the customs union and single market.
Sturgeon called on Prime Minister Theresa May to abandon the UK Government’s ‘unsustainable’ position of keeping the UK outside a customs union after Brexit in order for negotiations to progress.
She said failure to reach a position that would allow a frictionless border in Ireland while being outside the trade bloc had shown the UK’s demands to be “irreconcilable”.
“To cut to the chase, reality at some point has to bite for the UK. Currently, the Government is trying to reconcile a whole plethora of irreconcilable issues,” she said.
“At some point it has to choose and at the point it has to choose, I believe there is a positive prospect that that choice, because of the dynamic in the House of Commons and in the country more generally, that that will take us in the direction of the customs union and the single market.
“If that’s coming eventually, I think the sooner we get to that point the better for everybody and the more certainty we give to businesses and organisations who are desperately wanting that.”
She added: “I think the only credible and sustainable option for the UK here is to remain within a customs union and it’s a question of whether they concede that now or are forced to concede that later, in my view.”
“My view is if they concede it now, then we might start to see some progress in these talks and that would be better than waiting until later.”
In the middle of May, MSPs refused consent for the UK Government’s legislation to repatriate powers from Brussels, accusing it of “overriding the Scottish Parliament”.
Scotland’s Brexit minister, Michael Russell, called the UK Government’s plans to withhold control over 24 areas for seven years “the worst challenge to devolution since 1999”.
The UK Government has insisted the “vast majority” of the 158 areas of policy currently decided in Brussels will go directly to the Scottish and Welsh parliaments after Brexit, but UK-wide frameworks are needed in areas such as agriculture, fisheries, food labelling and public procurement.
While the Scottish Government agrees on the need for the UK-wide frameworks, it has described the retention of overall control of these areas as a ‘power grab’.
Meanwhile, other important questions remain around education and health. In April, education reforms announced by Education Secretary John Swinney were met with a lukewarm response.
According to public consultation, concerns remain about the Scottish Government’s planned reforms of school governance.
Swinney wants to see headteachers handed more power over budgets, while strategic planning will be done by councils working together in new regional improvement collaboratives.
He has already made important concessions to the local authority umbrella body COSLA over the structure of the plans.
An analysis of the latest consultation on the plans said: “In general, there was support for the principles behind the Education (Scotland) Bill although there was less support for legislation to enshrine these principles.”
There was also a call for greater clarity over what the new structure would look like.
For example, some elements of the proposed headteachers’ charter are already happening in schools, according to respondents, and there were warnings from a fifth of respondents that inconsistencies could arise between schools.
In terms of health, Health Secretary Shona Robison was put under further pressure last week following the news that NHS Scotland has recorded its worst-ever performance against a legally binding guarantee that all patients will be treated within 12 weeks.
Only 75.9 per cent of patients were treated within the timescale in the first three months of 2018, according to the latest figures, the lowest percentage since the Treatment Time Guarantee was introduced in 2012.
The Scottish Government said the figures reflected the pressure put on services during the severe weather in March, dubbed ‘the Beast from the East’, but opposition parties pointed to the fact the figures covered the full three months.
Health Secretary Shona Robison said: “This period covered a challenging winter for the NHS and severe weather in early March which caused disruption that took hospitals time to recover from.
“So it is testament to the hard work and dedication of staff that the average wait for patients receiving treatment within the Treatment Time Guarantee was eight weeks, and that 1.6 million patients have received their treatment within the guarantee since it was introduced.”
NHS finances have also been under scrutiny after NHS Tayside was placed under special measures and its leadership team replaced.
NHS Lothian, Highland and Ayrshire have also been facing financial issues.
However, despite these issues, the SNP still remains in a strong position.
As former SNP MP George Kerevan wrote recently in The National, “the political barometer is still set fair for the SNP”.
He added: “Yet this is precisely the moment when a political party should be taking the initiative. In politics, unexpected squalls are the norm.
“If you are fortunate to have a bit of room for manoeuvre, then use it while you can. Or be prepared to lose it.”
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