Published on October 20th, 2015 |
by Eleanor Newis
SNP Conference 2015: “The Challenges of the Future”
As the delegates and supporters gathered in Aberdeen for the Scottish National Party’s 2015 conference, the mood was an intriguing one. The party has been in power in Scotland since 2007, but, with now only 200 days till the next Scottish election, in Holyrood, they are still reeling somewhat from the “no” vote to Scottish independence. They’ve had plenty of time to regroup, but the absence of victory on their flagship issue has left its mark. There was also a slight stumbling block as regards the budgeting announcements – or lack thereof – because of course the Scottish government will not know its budget until Osbourne reveals his on the 25th November. This left Sturgeon in slight difficulties when asked about policy detail. But, she still pleased her audience, defending the SNP’s record in power, as well as announcing new policy. The SNP haven’t quite saved face over independence, and they haven’t given up on it either, but this conference proved them to be much wider than a single issue party.
Sturgeon’s 2015 conference speech contained what sounded like more welfare announcements than the Westminster government has made in five years. There are plans to narrow the attainment gap in Scottish education, with Sturgeon saying they “will double childcare provision to 30 hours a week for all 3 and 4 year olds and vulnerable 2 year olds.” She even promised that by 2018 every deprived nursery will have an extra teacher or childcare assistant, and there will also be an increase in childcare flexibility for parents. Added to this, there was a plan to make a new network of elective treatment centres across the country, at an investment of £200 million. These announcements come as the UK has just watched a Conservative Party conference in which their Prime Minister committed himself to even more austerity, and proposed essentially the opposite of what Sturgeon is planning for Scotland. The tension between Scottish voters and their government, and the Westminster rulers, has always been high, but the contrast of Cameron and Sturgeon’s speeches really brought it home.
Just to make sure we got the picture though, Sturgeon also told us about these tensions. In fact, she mainly mentioned Scottish independence throughout her speech in conjunction with griping at the Prime Minister. Calling his attitude towards the Scottish people “arrogant, patrician and out of touch”, she said “he and his government have treated Scotland with disdain.” She attacked him for “pressing ahead with austerity, despite 50% of people in Scotland voting for an anti-austerity party” and also brought up the Scotland Bill, which has been knocking around the House of Commons ever since the independence referendum. This bill was of course meant to give more power – and, many Scottish MPs seemed to hope – more respect to a Scotland which had almost voted to leave the United Kingdom. It was meant to reflect the widespread feeling throughout the country that they were being distantly ruled by Westminster, and that this needed to change.
Fast-forward to a few weeks ago, and to Jeremy Corbyn’s first Prime Minster’s Questions. Now, forget about Jeremy for a minute (I know it might be difficult.) Focus on the MP who stood up after Corbyn: a Scottish MP asking about the Scotland Bill. Apparently in a fit of pent-up Corbyn-related rage, Cameron reverted back to public school boy mode and had to be asked the question again. The MP in question had to posit the additional question, “is this the new Prime Minister’s Questions?” Cameron in turn challenged the SNP to come to Westminster with examples of where the government had not kept its vow to Scotland, and said the Tories had indeed accorded the country what it wanted. Yet, Sturgeon argued in her conference speech that Westminster have been “voting down amendment after amendment, after amendment to the Scotland Bill – against the views of the vast majority of Scotland’s MPs.” Without these amendments, Sturgeon argues that “the Scotland Bill does not even come close to honouring the vow that was made to the Scottish people.”
The problem, of course, is that not a lot can be done politically on the basis of a promise. the SNP cannot call another referendum on independence, and it cannot – though it will of course try its best – force Westminster to approve the Scottish Bill amendments, or keep its vow. However, what it can do is govern Scotland to the very extent of its power, and maybe also annoy David Cameron so much that eventually he gives in and let’s Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond simply write their own Scotland Bill. So far, they seem to be doing a pretty good job of this. Sturgeon put pressure on Downing Street by saying, “when our government gets the power to do so, we will begin to increase carers’ allowance so that it is paid at the same level as jobseekers’ allowance.” The key words in that sentence being of course, “when our government gets the power to do so”. The SNP have now announced that they will not reopen the voting for independence, as the leader said at the conference that the 2014 verdict must be respected. A lot of the party seem to want another vote before 2020, while say that 60% of the electorate being in favour of independence at the polls for 12 months is enough to go forward. 60% is a high bar to set for an independence vote – and especially one which has been (albeit narrowly, at 45%-55%) been voted against before.
Yet, this will have to wait. Right now, the SNP are clearly looking towards Holyrood, and even thoughts of Scottish independence are not going to distract them. The fact that the big issue of the 2015 SNP conference has been what they would do about independence if re-elected is telling: it is not often we speculate about what a party will do in government, as opposed to whether they will make it into government. If the SNP do go for another vote on independence before 2020, I’m just going to recommend they do it shortly before the 2020 general election, by which time the Tories will probably have helped their campaign a lot – as has happened historically with nationalistic feeling in Scotland. In the mean time, it looks like they are set to win again in Scotland, and they are proving that they are not just a single-issue party – something that all single-issue parties actually want to do. They have succeeded in this sense in doing something neither the Green Party or UKIP have managed. The run-up to Holyrood will tell us more about the future of the SNP, and of course Scottish politics, but for now, Scotland’s ruling party seems strong despite the difficult position on independence. It is a wise tactical choice not to bang on about a second referendum, but it might also give the SNP room to forge a certain identity for themselves as a party whose policy is further reaching than simply a “yes/no” referendum.