By Campaign Agent Christy Williams
In a week which saw tens of thousands take to the streets for a pro-independence march in Edinburgh, the 2018 Scottish National Party conference was once again dominated by calls for Scottish independence. Despite continued pressure from activists, Sturgeon’s speech showed a tactfulness about her approach to a second vote, following the loss of the 2014 campaign, and her patient methodology may prove necessary if she is to avoid a nationalist defeat for the second time around.
Throughout her speech, Sturgeon attacked what she called an unstable government at Westminster, contrasting the “shambolic, chaotic and utterly incompetent” handling of the Brexit negotiations with the ‘sturdy’ and ‘functioning’ SNP at Holyrood. ‘Hope’ became a key theme of the speech with the words “making hope possible” being referred back to several times as the Scottish First Minister defended her party’s record on the economy, house building and other social welfare issues.
Further scathing attacks on the UK central government were prominent throughout, with the SNP leader blaming the poor administration of universal credit for rent arrears and increased reliance on foodbanks across the nation. She asserted that “it is unacceptable, that in 21st century Scotland, people are unable to eat as a direct result of Westminster government policy”.
The Labour party weren’t spared from the firing line either, as Sturgeon labelled them not as the workers’ party but as ‘Westminster’s party’ in retaliation to their backing of the parliamentary vote to block Scottish parliament’s power to legislate on Scottish worker’s rights.
The message was clear: ‘no matter who the party, Westminster parliament doesn’t work for Scottish interests’, with Sturgeon keen to emphasise independence as the ultimate way to provide true representative government in Scotland. Brexit was also used to bolster her pro-independence argument, with a reference to Winston Churchill as she proclaimed that “never has so much been lost by so many to satisfy so few”. Again, the idea of a conflict between Scottish and UK interests was played upon by Sturgeon after a clear desire to remain in the EU was expressed by the Scottish electorate in the 2016 EU referendum - contrary to the UK’s overall decision.
Many saw the EU referendum result as a clear revival of the calls for Scottish independence and Sturgeon’s speech at the 2018 conference certainly sought to build on that momentum. However, she also demonstrated a cautiousness in her assertions. Despite claims that the polls are in the nationalists’ favour, the reality has not been quite so clear cut. In fact, despite the 2016 Scottish remain vote and numerous clashes in Westminster over Scottish devolution powers, the polls continue to show a lack of clear support amongst Scots for independence. A Panelbase survey for the Sunday times suggested 48% support for independence even in the event of a no-deal Brexit, while an SNP-commissioned poll found that 50% of respondents would back independence if another referendum were to take place following the UK’s departure from the EU.
The SNP is well aware that to push for a second independence vote now would risk another loss and quite possibly irreparable damage to the calls for independence. This conference speech demonstrated an astute handling of expectations on the timing of another independence vote from a party leader all too aware that a clear nationalist backing must be established in the polls before people take to the ballot box once more.
Sturgeon asked for patience on the independence issue and instead focused on her opposition to Brexit, re-affirming the party’s stance in favour of a second EU referendum, declaring that “Independent Ireland has received nothing but solidarity from its European partners. Westminster has shown Scotland nothing but contempt.”
For the time being at least, it appears the SNP may put cries for independence on the back burner whilst turning its attention to Brexit and the possibility of a second EU referendum, a policy which the party can rely on the Scottish electorate to support. However, Sturgeon and other senior politicians in the party will continue to foster anti-Westminster sentiment, as demonstrated in this carefully constructed conference speech, so that when they see the time as right, the SNP can utilise a solid nationalist support base to kick-start an independence campaign once more.
Sources and further reading
‘Thousands march in Edinburgh for Scottish independence’, BBC News (6 October 2018)
Libby Brooks and Severin Carrell, ‘Brexit makes Scottish independence more likely, Sturgeon tells SNP’, The Guardian (9 October 2018)
‘Scottish Independence Referendum - Results’ , BBC News (19 September 2014)
Chris Deerin, ‘Nicola Sturgeon's grown-up conference speech shows a strategy for independence’, The New Statesman (9 October 2018)
‘In full: Nicola Sturgeon's speech to 2018 SNP conference’, BBC News (9 October 2018)
‘The Guardian view on universal credit: human cost and political price’, The Guardian (12 October 2018)
‘EU referendum: Scotland backs Remain as UK votes Leave’, BBC News (24 June 2016)
Severin Carrell, ‘Sturgeon's dilemma: what we learned from the SNP conference’, The Guardian (9 October 2018)
Image: the SNP @flickr