SNP conference 2018: elephants in the room

Written by Tom Freeman on 9 October 2018 in Inside Politics

The list of awkward topics the SNP needs to avoid at party conference is growing

Elephant stalked by lion - Marcus Gyger | Fondation Franz Weber

The SNP autumn conference has been a grandiose affair of late, with the party’s influx of new members after the 2014 independence referendum forcing it to look at bigger and bigger venues.

Becoming the third party at Westminster has brought with it the attention of the big sponsors and lobbyists.

And this year, having edged past the Conservatives across the UK for its number of members, the SNP can expect a conference with more colour and pomp than ever.

The SEC has become one of only two venues in Scotland big enough for the SNP in the autumn, and after taking control of Glasgow’s local authority last year, the party now dominates a city once steeped in Labour heritage.

SNP members embrace conference with optimism and gusto, dressing up, socialising and making themselves heard in the conference hall.

With the leading politicians now social media stars, members enjoy the opportunity to bend their ear or stop them for selfies. And they do talk about independence. 

The one issue that politically unites the very broad church of the SNP provides the hubbub in the coffee bar, the breakout rooms, in the pubs and on the train home.

But in recent years, the subject has been noticeable in its absence from official business.

While the room which houses Scotland’s press and media speculates and conjures headlines about Nicola Sturgeon’s potential scheduling for a second referendum on independence, the main conference hall has discussed asylum seekers, social care, mental health and the laws surrounding prostitution.

Independence, the party’s raison d’être, or at least the exact timing for a keenly anticipated second independence referendum, has become the elephant in the room.

To discuss it in official business is to fire a starting gun on a process the party could very well lose again.

And this year, that elephant is joined by a number of others in the herd.

The Sustainable Growth Commission, an economic prospectus for independence by former MSP Andrew Wilson, was intended as a discussion stimulus. Sturgeon said it would “restart the debate” about the “opportunities” of independence.

Interestingly though, aside from a series of town-hall meetings held by deputy leader Keith Brown across the country, many senior figures in the SNP have been reluctant to talk in depth about the paper because not only does it acknowledge an austerity agenda the party is keen to avoid but fails to answer key questions around the currency and the EU.

The biggest elephant in the room, however, is former leader and poster boy of the 2014 referendum Alex Salmond. 

The biggest of all big beasts in the SNP – albeit no longer a member – faces allegations of sexual harassment dating back to his time in office, and has challenged the government he used to lead in court over the process which brought the claims to light.

Salmond may divide opinion, but among party stalwarts he remains a figurehead – the man that took Scotland to the brink of independence in 2014.

Since then, his successor as FM has marched the troops back up the referendum hill and back down again.

But could this be the conference when independence returns to the agenda? Sturgeon has promised to revisit plans when more clarity has been provided on Brexit.

Speaking at the 50th anniversary of the Europa Institute at Edinburgh University recently, the First Minister said: “The end of this period of negotiation, I previously thought that would be October.

"It is now looking like that is more likely to be November, perhaps with a vote in the House of Commons in December.

“So I will take a judgment depending on where we get to, set out some views on where I think we’re heading if we don’t change course, and have more to say on that at that point.”

While clarity on Brexit has been as elusive as a moonbeam, opinion polls may yet provide the stimulus for Sturgeon to believe the hour has come.

Deltapoll, a member of the British Polling Council, surveyed 1,022 Scottish voters in September and found 47 per cent would back independence if the UK leaves the European Union, compared to 43 per cent who would vote no. Ten per cent were undecided.

However, the poll, which was conducted for a campaign to reverse the Brexit decision, showed a reversal if the UK remains in the EU, with 43 per cent for independence and 47 per cent against.   

The suggestion that Brexit will push some voters towards independence may be heartening for the SNP after successive polls since the EU referendum have continued to show support at a similar level to what it was in 2014.

But the party still finds itself arguing for remaining in the EU, as was the popular will of Scotland in 2016.

Although Brexit looks unlikely to be abandoned, if it does, it would surely push back the timescale for Scottish independence.

If willing the prospect of the whole thing being called off is now the pastime of those in denial, conversely, the mounting prospect of an exodus of skilled workers, trade tariffs and a shortage of food and medicines will add pressure on Sturgeon to cash in and name the date.

The First Minister will want to time the move to maximum effect, but her party disagrees on when that would be.

Too soon, and there will not be enough support; too late, and she may lose the majority for independence in the Scottish Parliament after the next election in 2021.

There is a sense the membership is keen to get going, as reflected in the debate around the deputy leadership contest. Senior MP Pete Wishart was given abuse online after airing his concerns over holding a referendum “prematurely”.

Among other insults, the North Perthshire MP was labelled an “Etonian boot licker” by one cybernat after writing a newspaper column warning that losing a second vote because Scots were not ready for independence would be a “national tragedy”.

“It would be easy to dismiss this as ‘just Twitter’ but I know that environment reasonably well and I have to conclude we might have an issue and difficulty in our movement,” he said.

Ultimately, if such a referendum was to be authentic, it would require the endorsement of the UK government, as Theresa May reminded MSPs in her March 2017 statement – “now is not the time”.

However much Sturgeon may want it, the timing of a second independence referendum is not wholly within her power. 

May, or whichever Conservative follows her as leader, is likely to suggest Sturgeon should seek another mandate for a referendum at the next Holyrood election before agreeing to a Section 30 order granting the Scottish Parliament the power to hold such a vote. 

Believing the SNP would lose seats in an election centring on a second indyref would be a gamble, but as one Tory source told the Spectator: “It is a risk, but it is less of a risk than having a second referendum.”

Even if independence remains a long game, the Sustainable Growth Commission was intended to breathe new life into the debate, and face off some of the criticism of the economic choices in the 2014 white paper on independence.

But economic realism does not sit well with those who bought into the vision of independence as an opportunity to be a more progressive, left-leaning, Scandinavian-style country.

A large number of disenfranchised voters in more deprived areas voted in 2014 for the first time in decades because they thought they could effect change, both to the country and to their own economic situation.

The question is whether that would happen again if the economic prospectus was similar to the status quo.

Wilson’s report advocates tight public spending to reduce Scotland’s deficit after independence, and to continue to use the pound, but without a formal currency union. It has brought criticism from the left.

Scottish Labour branded the document a “cuts commission”, while the Scottish Socialist Party and other left-wing advocates of independence said they would boycott any campaign that used the report as a blueprint.

At a fringe event at the SNP’s spring conference, former MP and economist George Kerevan was applauded when he said the report was “too conservative”.

“If we don’t have our own currency, we are at the mercy of the banks. And it is the banks and the banking system in this UK – this warped banking system – that is one of the real causes of our underperformance and our under investment and therefore our low productivity,” he said.

In a recent interview with Holyrood, Greek economist and politician Yanis Varoufakis called an independent Scotland keeping the pound “ludicrous”.

“Alex Salmond’s great error, which I very much fear Nicola Sturgeon is going to repeat, was to propose independence while keeping the pound. That is nonsense. It is ludicrous. Don’t do it again,” he said.

Varoufakis added: “People say to me, ‘you’re not in favour of Greece leaving the euro, why are you in favour of Scotland leaving the pound?’

"The answer is: you have Scottish money in your pockets. There are printing presses north of the border. All you need to do is decouple the 1:1 exchange rate between the English and Scottish pound.”

Alex Salmond’s choices in the white paper are not the only aspects of his record which will be whispered about at conference.

The former SNP leader strongly denies accusations that he behaved inappropriately towards two women at Bute House while he was FM, but he has quit the party to focus on the judicial review of the complaints process.

The review against the Scottish Government’s permanent secretary, Leslie Evans, is due to commence at the Court of Session in January.

Two newspapers have recently reported other complaints made about Salmond, one from 2013, but the Scottish Government has said it has no record of earlier complaints.

A spokesperson said: “The Scottish Government received two complaints in January in relation to Alex Salmond. These could not be ignored or swept under the carpet.

“No complaints were raised with the then deputy first minister about Alex Salmond under the previous process and, as we have said, the first time the First Minister became aware of the fact of an investigation was from Alex Salmond in April 2018.

“We are confident our processes are legally sound and we will vigorously defend our position.”

But although Salmond won’t be at conference in person, the situation will divide opinion among members in the coffee bars.

A crowdfunder by the former FM to pay for the legal case raised £100,000 in three days from more than 4,100 people, a handful of elected members among them. 

Western Isles MP Angus MacNeil tweeted the fundraising page approvingly, while Midlothian MSP Colin Beattie, the SNP’s party treasurer, donated, but the donation later disappeared from the page.

Meanwhile, Sturgeon took the opportunity to tweet a fundraiser for Rape Crisis Scotland.  

At an SNP away-day as the allegations went public, Sturgeon told parliamentarians: “How we deal with this and how we are seen to respond to this will say a lot about who we are as a party and also about the country we are today and want to build for the future.

“Let’s not forget that at the heart of this, amidst all the focus on process, politics and personalities, there are two people who have brought forward complaints, which cannot have been easy to do.

"I want to be not just the First Minister but also a citizen of a country where people feel that they can come forward and know that their complaints will be taken seriously.

“Therefore, in everything we do and say, we need to make sure that we are not making it harder for people to come forward in the future.

"Otherwise we risk setting back so much of the progress that has been made in recent times.”

If conference seeks refuge in the domestic policy agenda, however, it may well seek to avoid some elephants there too.

Education, billed the “centrepiece” and “number one priority” of the SNP’s ambitions for Scotland, has been the subject of the party’s most uncomfortable moments in government.

Deputy First Minister John Swinney, a former party leader, had to shelve his flagship legislation after failing to win the support of the parliament, teaching unions and councils.

In May, Swinney announced his plans would be “fast-tracked” by councils. 

“I can make more progress by collaborating with local authorities than I can through legislation,” he told MSPs, but some elements, including replacing the General Teaching Council for Scotland, had been abandoned.

Then, no sooner had MSPs reconvened after recess than they inflicted defeat on the Scottish Government over standardised testing for primary one pupils, after summer reports that the process had caused stress and anxiety in five-year-olds.

SNP members expressed outrage at the Conservatives for voting against the tests, as they have been longstanding supporters of more assessments, but ministers remain dedicated to the idea.

In this context, tub thumping about education at conference may seem hollower than in previous years, and with the prospect of the first national strike by teachers in Scotland since the 1980s looming, it could even look insensitive. 

Indeed, teachers aren’t the only public sector workers threatening an autumn of strikes.

This conference might have been an opportunity for councillors to highlight the record of more SNP-controlled councils than ever before, but proposed action by Unite, Unison and the GMB could see schools closed, refuse collections halted and burials and cremations cancelled.

And despite the arrival of a favourite among the faithful, Jeane Freeman, as health secretary, ongoing challenges faced by the health service, local disputes over the consolidation of services, and almost weekly publication of uncomfortable statistics such as waiting times, means there will be no sanctuary in health.

Conference is a time for members to get together and share ideas, but while the SEC will witness the usual puissance, pep and pageantry, some conversations may well be curbed. 

Despite the presence of a whole herd of elephants in the room, the lions rampant will be flying high. 

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