SNP Conference: Is Scottish independence closer than ever?
Born as a party of protest on the radical prospectus of Scottish sovereignty at a time when a post-war Britain was rebuilding, the SNP has gone from a fringe outlier to the dominant political force in Scotland in less than two decades.
Its leader Nicola Sturgeon is the longest-serving first minister in the history of devolution and, at the last Holyrood election, it secured a record vote share after almost 15 years in power. The party is understood to be the third largest party by membership in the UK and despite the growth of the Scottish Greens and emergence of Alba and other pro-indy fringe parties, remains the loudest voice calling to break up the Union.
It is also a party under fire over its record in government on ferries, education and health, and one that is no longer seen as squeaky-clean, following scandals involving a number of high-profile figures at Holyrood, Westminster and at council level. These, including schoolboy texting revelations about then-finance secretary Derek Mackay (who was tipped as a future party leader), sexual misconduct allegations about North Lanarkshire Council leader Jordan Linden and a harassment finding against former Westminster chief whip Patrick Grady, have been bruising for the party.
Meanwhile, the “civil war” that surrounded the Alex Salmond sexual harassment inquiry and was predicted to rip the party apart has failed to do so, with Salmond’s breakaway Alba party losing, not gaining, councillors at the local government contest earlier this year.
This weekend, the SNP faithful turns out for its autumn conference in Aberdeen – the first in-person conference for two years – in what remains one of the biggest dates on the Scottish political calendar. The three-day event is held as the UK Government struggles to regain composure and control of the economy after a disastrous mini-Budget. And it is held just days before the Supreme Court is to hear arguments in a landmark case aimed at determining whether or not the Scottish Parliament has the competency to legislate for an advisory referendum on independence, without the say-so from London.
There are always people who want to take pot-shots
It is a case aimed at settling questions over the permissibility of indyref2 once and for all, and the date of 19 October 2023 has already been picked out for the big day. Sturgeon has said that her party will fight the next general election as a “de facto” independence referendum if the judges find against the Scottish Government.
Constitution secretary Angus Robertson says the prospect of a fresh ballot one year from now is “realistic”, but privately some SNP sources doubt that this can be achieved, even if the court says yes. “It’s unlikely,” one senior figure told Holyrood. “The timescale is getting compressed to have the type of campaign we would want.”
There is a sense that this will be a pivotal moment for the SNP, and the independence movement. And, after so long in charge, some commentators ask if Sturgeon can really pull it off.
“It is clear that she is running out of time, both in the eyes of her party and the public, who are finally waking up to the dreadful legacy of SNP rule,” wrote Alan Cochrane in The Telegraph late last month. The SNP has become “the defender of mediocrity”, wrote former Scottish Government special advisor Alex Bell in The Sunday Times on the party’s record in government. The SNP, he argued “has become addicted to the absolutism of independence and nothing less”, with the “gradualism which led to the 2011 victory shunned in favour of monomaniacal indy obsession”.
“There are always people who want to take pot-shots,” a party source tells Holyrood of such criticism, pointing out that contradictory articles accusing the SNP of putting too much and too little focus on independence or a wider agenda are often published in the same week. “You always have that voice that dissents, for whatever their motivation might be. Sometimes that’s justified, sometimes they just want to take a pop at the SNP.”
According to a recent YouGov poll on Westminster voting intention, Scots could elect 49 SNP MPs at a general election, with second placed Labour increasing their share to seven amidst a Tory wipeout. “They think it’s their moment,” an SNP politician says of Anas Sarwar’s party. “They’ve got a long way to go.”
Work by the polling firm for The Times ranked Sturgeon (who received both boos and cheers from crowds waiting for King Charles in Dunfermline recently) as slightly less popular in Scotland than Labour leader Keir Starmer, whose UK-wide ratings have also improved. That data was compiled after an Edinburgh Festivals appearance in which Sturgeon discussed her leadership intentions amidst speculation over how long she would last.
“The default position is that of course I’ll fight the next election, but I will make a judgement on that nearer the time,” she said, calling the suggestion that she was “just waiting for the right time to chuck it, to stand down and to move into some grand international job” mere “wishful thinking” on the part of her opponents. “You can see why people like [Lib Dem leader] Alex Cole-Hamilton would like me to stand down and not be up for the fight any more, but I’m up for the challenge,” she said.
But it’s not only rivals who have raised eyebrows over her future. After another Edinburgh appearance, in which she told actor Brian Cox she “can’t wait” until she – as he said – doesn’t “give a fuck any more”, writer and independence supporter Gerry Hassan has said part of her is “thinking and dreaming” of a life beyond domestic politics.
No one close to the FM would think that, according to Gordon MP Richard Thomson – “no one serious” anyway. “She is still Scotland’s preeminent politician, head and shoulders above everybody else. I have no doubt about her drive. Anyone who wants to doubt her either doesn’t know her or is simply at it.”
Anyway, he says, the SNP and wider independence movement is “not about having just one figurehead, it’s about having many different voices in positions of influence”. Political scientist Dr Kirsty Hughes wonders why we aren’t hearing more from these voices amidst what she calls “a lack of political energy” in the SNP. “We had Nicola Sturgeon announcing in June that they are taking the case to the Supreme Court, and then came policy papers from the Scottish Government,” she says. “The first two were sound but dull. They have not electrified anybody, including the SNP.
“Is there a strategy here, because my impression is there is no serious independence campaign going on from the SNP. Where are the big speeches?”
That material needs to show the result of “hard thinking” on the border, re-entry to the EU, currency and debt share, Hughes says. The Scottish Government has said that its 10-paper series will cover such subjects, following an initial two which compared Scotland’s economy with that of smaller EU nations and the so-called democratic deficit. But Hughes is surprised that more detail on the release schedule hasn’t been forthcoming. “There’s no sense of momentum,” she says. “You can’t go for independence and do it like a six-week election campaign. You need to be getting independence support up to 55 per cent or higher and have it staying there.”
Bell, too, says the SNP is “in power but without propulsion,” and describes the party as an “increasingly bitter group”. Thomson says the party is “united” and “positive”, and lower levels of energy are not unique to the SNP. “There’s a perpetual cycle of elections in Scotland that drains people,” he says. “People have been through a hell of a lot in the pandemic. It has taken away from being able to meet and bounce off each other and it’s been draining for people away from politics. There’s something in everybody being a bit demoralised, but there’s nothing as energising as an idea whose time has come.”
There’s already plenty of campaigning taking place, Thomson says. He cites canvassing in Dundee and the distribution of 100,000 indy papers by the Aberdeen Independence Movement group in the north east as examples. “People are getting off their marks” without waiting for a Yes Scotland-style drive, he says. “There is evidence of momentum getting going.”
Let's create a country that really works for us
Erin Mwembo, convenor of the SNP’s Young Scots for Independence (YSI) youth wing, says there has been a “sense of excitement” amongst members since the last election. “The SNP has been delivering really well, policy-wise,” she says. “That is really important.”
There are tens of thousands in YSI, Mwembo says. In previous years, the group included Sturgeon, Fiona Hyslop, Angus Robertson and others, but Mwembo is “not in it for a career”. “We see it as a vehicle for change,” she says of the current office-bearers. “We have managed to really change policy; we really have the ear of the government. The party has a lot of trust in us and we trust in them.”
If YSI gets its way, the SNP will do more on international outreach, explore reducing the size of councils after independence, act on buffer zones outside abortion clinics and do more on a wellbeing economy. This builds on a wider policy platform that aims to address gender inequality and improve social justice. And it will also deliver a second independence referendum. “It’s about championing what young people want and why they want it,” she says of her organisation’s role in any future campaign. “Let’s not take forward this system and processes, let’s change and create a country that really works for us.”
Thomson, too, is confident about what lies ahead. “Parties that have been in power for a longer period have always been good at replenishing themselves,” he says. “The SNP has shown itself adept at doing that. Changing it relies on other parties presenting a compelling set of personalities and policies. I don’t see any sense that other parties in Scotland have learned that yet. They are still looking for a ‘gotcha’ moment that will take down the SNP.”
In a blog published by the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), Anthony Salamone of political analysis firm European Merchants says the party’s continued success “is not predestined”. “If Scotland does not become independent in the years ahead, disillusionment could build against the SNP in favour of an alternative,” he writes.
“If Scotland does become independent, the SNP could fracture into a number of different parties as ideological lines are drawn. More organically, for whatever reason, a critical mass of voters may simply decide one day that it prefers a change of government. Should that situation materialise, it would arguably be the most consequential development in Scottish politics since the 2014 independence referendum, and it could well reshape Scotland.”