Disquiet over Scottish independence vote strategy clouds SNP conference

Scottish independence updates

Delegates to the Scottish National party’s autumn conference have blocked debate on an alternative to an independence referendum and on how to manage a border with England, decisions that risk deepening dissatisfaction among some members with first minister Nicola Sturgeon’s strategy.

Sturgeon led the SNP to a resounding victory in devolved parliamentary elections in May and now, together with her new partners in government the Scottish Greens, commands a formal majority in the chamber at Holyrood for a second referendum on independence from the UK.

But some in the party do not believe the SNP leader has a credible strategy for achieving her stated goal of holding a referendum before the end of 2023 and is not moving urgently enough to lay the ground for winning such a vote amid a fall in support for independence since last year.

A senior SNP politician said the agenda sent out this week did not include a drafted resolution included in a previous draft agenda that called for the creation of an expert commission on how to manage an independent Scotland’s border with the remainder of the UK and other trade partners.

The party conference will run online from Friday to Monday.

The only mentions of a referendum in the conference agenda sent out this week come in resolutions supporting Sturgeon’s pledge not to hold one until the coronavirus pandemic is over and backing “development of a campaign”.

The conference is scheduled to debate 21 resolutions, ranging from citizenship criteria for an independent Scotland to the timescale for removing nuclear weapons.

“It’s uninspiring, motherhood and apple pie stuff,” said the parliamentarian. “I’ve no expectations for this conference at all.”

Angus MacNeil, an SNP member of the UK parliament, said he had unsuccessfully requested debate on a motion to treat the 2026 Scottish parliamentary elections as a vote on independence if the UK government continues to refuse permission for a referendum.

The SNP did not initially respond to a request for comment on the handling of the proposed resolutions, but a party spokesman later said the resolutions had been chosen by an online ballot of all delegates to the conference.

UK prime minister Boris Johnson has ruled out approving a rerun of the 2014 referendum, in which Scots backed the union by 55-45 per cent. Johnson’s Scotland secretary, Alister Jack, last month told Politico that a referendum could be held if opinion polling consistently showed 60 per cent of Scots wanted one.

Sturgeon has promised to put legislation for a second referendum to the Scottish parliament, but has not yet said when. The UK government insists its approval is legally required for an independence vote, and any legislation setting the stage for one is expected to be challenged in court.

“We may yet have to turn to using an election [as a vote for independence] because we have no alternative,” said MacNeil.

Some SNP members and analysts believe Sturgeon is reluctant to seek to force the issue of a second referendum quickly despite her aim to hold one by the end of 2023. Opinion polls suggest voters believe she should focus on the coronavirus pandemic and that support for independence has fallen after enjoying a sustained lead in 2020.

Most polls this year have put support for the union at over 50 per cent when don’t know and undecided are included, though one survey by Opinium for Sky News published on Thursday put independence ahead by a marginal 51-49 per cent.

Chart tracking support for Scottish independence over time since the referendum in 2014

Sir John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde university, suggested in a blog post on Wednesday that it was not in independence supporters’ interest to pursue an early referendum.

“The independence movement needs to tip the balance of support back in its direction, and preferably (from its perspective) not just to the level of 12 months ago, but to above and beyond that,” Curtice wrote.

Sturgeon insists the UK government will eventually be unable to block a referendum indefinitely and she remains deeply reluctant to embrace back-up alternatives to what she has called the “gold standard” route to independence.

The first minister on Tuesday announced her government would restart work on a “detailed prospectus” for independence, but gave no details.

A revised case will have to grapple with significant challenges, including the collapse of the oil revenues an independent Scotland could expect and the prospect of a hard economic border with the remaining UK following Brexit.

“The interactions between Brexit, the deterioration in Scotland’s fiscal situation and the continued lack of an easy option for the currency have made the economics of Scottish independence even more challenging than at the time of the first referendum in 2014,” Paul Dales, chief UK economist at Capital Economics wrote in a research note this week.

For now, Sturgeon looks easily able to weather internal dissatisfaction. Many of the first minister’s most vocally impatient critics in the SNP left the party earlier this year to join the new Alba party, led by her former mentor and now bitter rival, Alex Salmond.

Alba, which will have its own first autumn conference at the weekend, has so far failed to make much impact on Scottish politics, winning a meagre 1.7 per cent share of the national vote in May.

However, some who stayed in the SNP are deeply disillusioned. “I just don’t see independence coming under this leadership at all. I don’t think they have the appetite or the ability to deliver it,” the parliamentarian said.

MacNeil said his party leader was undeniably talented, but needed encouragement from advisers to “take the next step”.

The MP for the Outer Hebrides constituency Na h-Eileanan an Iar cited accounts of the 1314 Battle of Bannockburn — where Scotland’s king Robert the Bruce defeated the army of England’s Edward II — saying an initially cautious Bruce had to be persuaded to fight by lords from the Scottish highlands and islands.

“As we know from history, that was wise counsel,” MacNeil said.

This article has been amended to clarify that delegates selected which motions would be debated at the confernece

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