Analysis: SNP conference takes place amid a unique state of political chaos
It may not have ranked alongside questions of independence referendums, currency plans or Brexit in the eyes of the travelling media, but in the minds of SNP members at last year’s conference, one of the most significant developments had nothing to do with constitutional politics.
The SNP business convener for seven years, Derek Mackay had been a mainstay of conference throughout a time of extraordinary change in Scottish politics. Two general elections, one Scottish Parliament election, two local elections, two European elections and two referendums – Mackay’s time in the chair had hardly been uneventful. Yet, with things wilder than ever, the 2018 conference marked the end of his time in the role.
“I am addressing you for the last time as business convener of the SNP,” he said. “The party I joined at 16, and have been privileged to serve as your convener for the last seven years.
“Chairing the party through referenda, elections, a surge in membership which saw the SNP become the second largest party in the whole of UK.
“Not always the easiest job in the world, but as the longest serving business convener the party has had, I say this to you, to my SNP family, thank you!”
People are looking at the state of what’s going on at Westminster and delegates will be as appalled as everybody else at the chaos there
With that, Mackay bowed out, and although he will appear on stage this year, it will be as finance secretary, rather than spending all day seated next to the lectern, threatening to cut off the microphone when delegates go past their allotted time.
His successor as convener, Kirsten Oswald, is a walking reminder of the changes to sweep Scottish politics, given she has only been a member of the SNP since 2014, having joined up in the heat of the independence referendum. She won her East Renfrewshire seat in 2015 and lost it again in 2017. Then, with the party scrambling to prepare for a snap election, she has again been named as the party’s candidate to win back the seat.
Speaking to Holyrood ahead of her first full conference as convener, she said: “It’s been a big change, and obviously it’s a big set of shoes to fill, because Derek has done such a brilliant job, and those before him have too, but it’s been fantastic. It was definitely something I’ve felt really privileged to be asked to do.
“I’m all raring to go, just as much as the other activists. I’m the first woman business convener and I think that’s a real positive for the party, to make sure we keep pushing these barriers. We are a party with a lot of strong women doing important jobs, and I think even for people beyond the party, it’s important to have that kind of profile where you can see change happening and be part of making that change. I’m the business convener, which is great, but I am also an activist, just like all the other people sitting in the hall.
“I’m not sure there will be any radical differences, if I’m honest. Derek approached his job with good grace and good humour, and I think that’s probably my normal approach to most things. It’s such a buzz being at conference, no matter where in the room you happen to be sitting, and the SNP is a party of folk that want to get their sleeves rolled up and get involved. To be part of that is certainly something that makes me feel pretty empowered and energised.”
But with the last four years seeing the UK slide further and further into political chaos, it feels like a long time since Oswald unseated then Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy in the midst of a massive post-referendum surge in support for the SNP.
The 2016 EU referendum changed everything, while tempers have hardly been calmed by the sight of Boris Johnson trampling over convention after convention, from his attempts to prorogue parliament to his use of increasingly inflammatory political rhetoric.
“I think the state of Westminster is terribly troubling for lots of people and it’s not a wonder that they are looking at independence and thinking that would be a far better option
And in that context, it’s easy to forget that the last year has not been an easy one for the SNP. But given the turmoil embroiling the Scottish Conservatives and Labour, it’s equally questionable whether climb-downs on policies such as Named Person or Air Passenger Duty, or the very public infighting brought by conflict over proposed reforms of the Gender Recognition Act, have really hurt the party’s popularity.
The criminal charges hanging over Alex Salmond – the former first minister faces multiple charges including attempted rape and sexual assault – bring the prospect of senior SNP politicians being dragged into court to give evidence, yet with the trial not expected until January, it seems the party will have at least one more conference free from the political aftermath.
In the meantime, the party continues to exert a remarkable dominance over Scottish politics, even after 12 years in power, though again, whether the SNP’s record in government is the driving force of its popularity is also debatable.
Yet domestic policy has rolled on regardless, with the first major changes to income tax and the devolution of aspects of the welfare system coming alongside the so-called smacking ban and a raft of new environmental policies.
The climate bill was passed in the Scottish Parliament by 113 votes to zero after the Scottish Greens abstained, with MSPs rejecting a bid from Mark Ruskell to target an 80 per cent reduction in emissions by 2030, but backing an amendment from Scottish Labour MSP Claudia Beamish for a 75 per cent cut by 2030.
Meanwhile, the Scottish Government announcing it will oppose fracking will buoy the membership ahead of the meet-up. But while conference provides many functions, from policy debates to social reunions with old friends, to Oswald at least, there is little doubt the mood of members will be heavily influenced by the continuing turbulence at Westminster.
She says: “I think people are looking at the state of what’s going on at Westminster and delegates will be as appalled as everybody else at the chaos there and the need to be checking if the Prime Minister is intending to break the law. What an extraordinary state of affairs, to be wondering if people that have been elected as representatives are going to need to be checked in with to see if there’s an intention to comply with the law.
“I think the state of Westminster is terribly troubling for lots of people and it’s not a wonder that they are looking at independence and thinking that would be a far better option. We’d do much better if we were able to make these decisions ourselves, but some of it [events in the Commons] has been really unedifying. Some of the language and the tone, and the way things are being dealt with is really troubling, and our delegates are no different, though obviously, we can see there is a different way, and a better way.”
And so as delegates arrive at conference, it’s hard to escape the feeling that Boris Johnson’s arrival as Prime Minster, and particularly his willingness to take the UK out of the EU without a deal, has handed the SNP, and pro-independence campaigners more generally, a massive opportunity, with polling conducted shortly after his arrival in office pointing towards a bump in support.
“From branch meetings, I can say that people are pretty enthusiastic about getting out there with clipboards and knocking on the doors
The first survey, conducted by Lord Ashcroft days after Johnson visited Scotland, put support for independence at 46 per cent with 43 per cent against. When ‘don’t knows’ or those who say they would not vote are excluded, support for independence rises to 52 per cent for, 48 per cent against.
Reported in a Holyrood exclusive, the poll results represented the first lead for independence in a major poll since an Ipsos MORI survey in March 2017, as well as the biggest lead for a ‘yes’ vote since a spate of polls were published in 2016.
Meanwhile, 47 per cent of those surveyed said that there should be a second independence referendum within the next two years.
All of which will have been very welcome news to the SNP, after Nicola Sturgeon used an appearance in the chamber in April to announce the Scottish Government will begin another push for a second Scottish independence referendum before the next Holyrood election in 2021.
SNP strategists denied it, but the campaign had appeared to be losing its way, particularly after the party saw its Westminster seat share fall to 35 following the 2017 snap election. The election had been disastrous for Theresa May, but it had spelled bad news for Sturgeon too, and the drop in power obviously prompted second thoughts among those in party HQ, eventually leading the SNP leader to announce a “reset” of her proposed referendum timetable, which would have meant a vote by spring 2019.
And so, with Johnson’s election provoking an apparent spike in support, and despite the need for more sustained evidence over time, the independence movement is clearly more optimistic than it has been in years.
Under the most recent set of plans, the push for a second vote before 2021 would be accompanied by plans for cross-party talks and a citizens’ assembly on alternatives to a “failed and damaging status quo”.
Subsequent polls have lent further evidence to underpin the view that there’s rising support for leaving the UK, with a survey from YouGov conducted between 30 August and 3 September finding that, leaving aside ‘don’t knows’, as many as 49 per cent said they would vote for independence.
Meanwhile, 57 per cent of those who voted Remain in 2016 said that they would vote Yes, up ten points on the figure in June of last year. In contrast, at 30 per cent, support for independence among those who voted No had fallen slightly.
This, according to Professor John Curtice’s analysis, represents a consistent pattern across all six poll readings of independence vote intentions published so far this year. Leaving aside those who said they do not know, on average, support for independence is sitting at 49 per cent, up by four points on the 2014 vote, where it has more or less sat ever since.
While the mood may not be shared by others in Scottish politics, the SNP’s support may well be feeling closer to a Yes vote than it has at any time since 2014.
“I think people are quite determined,” Oswald says. “From branch meetings, I can say that people are pretty enthusiastic about getting out there with clipboards and knocking on the doors. There might be things happening that they [members] find quite extraordinary, but it’s not going to put them off from campaigning for the SNP. From my point of view, that’s good to see, despite the chaos all around us, because there’s no better time to get out and knock on doors. That’s very much the feeling, people are active in their membership. Also, the thought of a potential election is always something activists are very interested in and there’s plenty of discussion about that. It’s a critical time and it’s good people are so enthused about getting out there.
“I think we have every reason to feel positive about going forward. From my point of view, it’s all about getting out there and making sure we connect with voters, so we can let them know what we’re all about. It’s all about speaking to people, and making sure we have these conversations with voters.”