Sturgeon's dilemma: what we learned from the SNP conference

Scotland isn’t ready for independence but the party needs to keep it on the agenda

Mike Russell calms the troops

Scotland’s constitutional affairs minister, Mike Russell, had the potentially perilous task of urging SNP activists to temper their ardour for a second independence vote.

Gathering beside the Clyde for their annual conference, many said Nicola Sturgeon had to prioritise a fresh referendum above all else. In a carefully calibrated speech on Tuesday, Russell warned they had yet to achieve one thing: winning popular support for independence.

Activists pointed to Saturday’s pro-independence march in Edinburgh, claiming that 100,000 people paraded through the city – a figure five times the official estimate of 20,000 from Edinburgh council, as evidence the time is right. On Sunday, a spate of opinion polls confirmed the opposite remains true: there is not yet majority support among Scottish voters.

This underlines Sturgeon’s dilemma: recognising the appetite for a fresh referendum while managing expectations about its timing, with Brexit still the most pressing issue the country faces. Unlike most of his peers in the SNP cabinet, Russell has the heft, status and authority to help her do so.

Several phrases leapt out, including his warning that independence “isn’t just about grabbing a lifeboat in choppy and dangerous seas”. The party had to wait until “our country is persuaded, ready and determined to win”, he cautioned.

Nicola Sturgeon has a spring in her step

They can’t quite put their finger on why, but several journalists found the first minister in a remarkably upbeat mood as she made a marathon round of television interviews on Monday. “Chipper as a chipmunk,” said one.

Quite a contrast to late August, when Sturgeon faced the cameras to discuss the revelation that her mentor Alex Salmond was under investigation for alleged sexual harassment. She seemed shattered, close to tears. That crisis has receded: his legal case against the Scottish government is now in the courts and the police investigation has some months to run.

Yet while little has changed on Brexit or independence, the political landscape has shifted in her favour: Scottish Labour has slumped back into third place in the polls, diminished again by internal feuds. Its leader, Richard Leonard, is invisible. And her most potent opponent, Ruth Davidson, is about to go on maternity leave while the Tories in London rip themselves apart. Sturgeon remains dominant.

English Tories don’t care – official

Of course, Sturgeon may have seen that Davidson, the darling of Scottish unionism, is likely to be sabotaged by her own party if the SNP manages to convert unrest over Brexit into majority support for independence. Fresh polling by Edinburgh and Cardiff universities released on Monday confirmed that 79% of English Tory party members would rather see Scottish independence than abandon Brexit; 75% would prefer the end of the Northern Irish peace process than abandon Brexit.

That suggests Boris Johnson’s appeal to those sentiments has wider support among English Tories than Davidson can admit. As the press release from Edinburgh University’s Centre for Constitutional Change put it: “May’s ‘precious Union’ has little support in Brexit Britain”.

Down with consensus

While the main conference was concerned with largely non-controversial policies, delegates were far more frank at fringe events at the Scottish Exhibition and Conference centre.

Perhaps it was their impatience about waiting for an independence referendum or a growing confidence among new recruits, but SNP activists this year were much more prepared to challenge leadership opinion at fringe events, whether expressing concern that supporting a ”people’s vote” would water down the drive for independence, or disabled activists challenging SNP politicians who suggested the universal credit system could be fixed.

Talking up the prospects for a second Brexit vote was a useful diversion

With Sturgeon and Russell managing expectations about the timing of a second independence vote, it seemed difficult to avoid concluding that Sturgeon’s apparent conversion to the case for a second Brexit referendum was a diversionary tactic to avoid that topic dominating the conversation.

Until she stole headlines on Sunday by declaring the SNP’s 35 MPs would “undoubtedly” back one if it came to a Commons vote, she had previously used a much more ambivalent formula, saying the SNP would not obstruct one.

Sturgeon knows Brexit is the defining political issue of the moment; party activists may dislike this but Scottish voters clearly think so. She may be rightly sceptical that a people’s vote will happen, but refusing to acknowledge that Scottish voters worry most about Brexit would undermine her cause far more than continuing to insist independence trumps all.


Severin Carrell Scotland editor

The GuardianTramp

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