15 Oct 2015

Sturgeon focused on May elections – but referendum question refuses to die

Scotland's First Minister and leader of the Scottish National Party Nicola Sturgeon delivers her speech during the party's annual conference in Aberdeen, Scotland

Nicola Sturgeon tried to put the second referendum issue to one side this morning so her conference would focus on the Holyrood elections.

But she didn’t put the issue in the long grass … you can distinctly see it still popping up above the vegetation.

The SNP leader and First Minister told her party that there were two main triggers for a second independence referendum: being ahead in the polls and Brexit.

Her aides acknowledge that only calling a referendum when you know you can win it will be seen as cynical by some. They argue its simply respecting democracy.

They’re careful not to talk numbers but you can come away with the impression that the Yes camp would need to be consistently in the high 50s or above for Nicola Sturgeon to feel she could safely press the button.

The other trigger, as she told SNP delegates in Aberdeen today, is an Out victory in the EU referendum. David Cameron promised Scotland that a No vote in the independence referendum would keep Scotland in, she said, so it would be a broken pledge.

Aides admit that a referendum on independence would be pretty automatic though they don’t want to say that in public because they feel they mustn’t be seen to presume Scottish opinion yet.

The SNP thinks it can maximise its vote in the May elections to Holyrood if anti-independence Scots and indy waverers are focused on the Scottish Parliament and not the future of the Westminster one.

It’s not Basil Fawlty’s “don’t mention the war” but it’s: “Here’s the line on the war, now can we move on for the next few months please?”

The SNP is here in extraordinary numbers. Peter Murrell, Chief Executive of the Party and husband of Nicola Sturgeon, remembers one past conference where 35 people turned up on the first day.

There are 3,500 delegate expected here this week and when you ask for a show of hands you get the impression the majority here are part of the surge that joined up after the referendum.

People were joining at the rate of 100 per minute and the computer system crashed under the pressure. Many of these newbies have never been involved in politics before but are here, grabbing front row seats, sitting through debates and expecting to be around until Nicola Sturgeon closes the conference on Saturday afternoon.

Delegate in a kilt waits to hear the speech by Scotland's First Minister and leader of the Scottish National Party Nicola Sturgeon during the party's annual conference in Aberdeen, Scotland

Ask these new member delegates if they’re okay waiting for a second referendum and you get a divided response. The message that they have to trust Nicola Sturgeon to make the call is getting through.

But you still find quite a few new members who want the second referendum pretty soon. “Immediately,” “tomorrow,” “two years,” “not more than five” were all answers you heard to the question today. Not exactly a generation.

Those arguments won’t be played out in the hall. There’s no debate on this issue here, not even in the fringe meetings.

Nicola Sturgeon mocked Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party today. It had, very briefly, looked a possible threat, one senior aide said. But the leadership quickly decided it was nothing of the sort. It is, Peter Murrell says, completely broken and has to be rebuilt from scratch.

The hope of the Corbynistas is that a left wing leader could attract back some of Scottish Labour’s lost support. That is challenged here, and here and here.

A big part of the problem appears to be the degree to which those on the Left who might most plausibly give Jeremy Corbyn a good look are often now wedded to the idea of independence.

In the conference hall delegates seem pretty loyal. You’d expect new recruits to be just that. But there’s been criticism that this fiercely on-message party discourages disagreement and that all this is ever more worrying when it is so dominating the political scene. Wikipedia now classifies Scotland as one of the world’s “dominant party or one party dominant states.”

But SNP advisers say the real political conversation these days often happens online. There is debate, they say, feisty at times, but it is through websites, other social media, members’ meetings, speaker question and answer sessions in the constituencies.

Outside the conference bubble, there’s the running issue of what would the SNP do with welfare powers if it got them in the quantity it wants them? (There’s also real doubt over what exactly is on offer from Westminster at the moment, explained very well  here).

There’s the issue of the oil price plummet which leaves, according to the IFS, a £7.5b hole in the independence prospectus which would’ve been coming into force around March next year if the Yes camp had won last September’s referendum.

There are the many issues of the performance of health, schools, the university sector, the police under the SNP government. There are now only 55 SNP MPs with one of the original MPs forced to leave the whip.

None of this seems about to alter what looks like being a spectacularly good result at next year’s Holyrood elections. “Politics isn’t about left and right here,” one aide to the leader said. “It’s about who stands up for Scotland.”

At the end of tonight’s political broadcast, Nicola Sturgeon frames the choice in exactly that way, turning coquettishly to the camera and asking: “Well? …”

Scotland appears to have already decided the answer.

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