I have a theory about party conferences. It’s that these annual fêtes of activists and parliamentarians amplify and embed — rather than reveal or upend — emergent trends within the hosting party.
It means, when it comes to conference season, outsider preconceptions are everything. In Manchester, Rishi Sunak had plans to refresh his premiership; but the fringe, and hence the commentariat, advanced a rather different reality. Then the press gallery gushed to Labour conference in Liverpool primed to frame their columns around a Tory incompetence-versus-Starmerite stolidity dichotomy.
So what does this mean for the SNP? The past two weeks have been particularly bruising for Humza Yousaf’s party following the loss of the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election to Scottish Labour and the defection of MP Lisa Cameron to the Scottish Conservatives.
Meanwhile, Fergus Ewing, whose mother Winnie (of Hamilton 1967 by-election fame) died recently, is currently suspended for criticising the SNP’s coalition with the Greens. And other senior separatists including Kate Forbes, runner-up to Humza Yousaf in the party’s leadership contest earlier this year; Ash Regan, the race’s also-ran; Alex Neil, the former Holyrood health secretary; and Angus MacNeil, now an independent MP after a bust-up with the Westminster Group, are all no-shows.
But, all this aside (not to mention the ongoing police probe into party finances), there is a rather more significant undercurrent at SNP conference. Nicola Sturgeon had once insisted that this Thursday, 19 October 2023, would serve as the date of Scotland’s second independence referendum. But on Sunday, SNP delegates gathered for a rethink of the party’s strategy, with no IndyRef2 in sight.
The task facing first minister Humza Yousaf this conference is manifold, therefore, as he attempts to present his party as united and progressing amid deep internal ructions and yearning for what might have been. Expectation management has never been the SNP’s forté, but in Aberdeen Yousaf probably has little option.
The first minister’s essential bind is between breathless independence supporters, who insist the SNP march on with its core mission, and the wider Scottish public who are losing faith in the party — if not, yet, independence. Indeed, despite the SNP’s party-political travails, support for separation is holding pretty steady.
So top of the agenda for Yousaf this party conference has been to settle on an independence strategy which commands broad support in the SNP, is realistic and might spur the salience of the “constitutional question”. Independence is popular but not at the top of the agenda with many Scottish voters — Yousaf must ensure it rises before 2024.
In this way, the self-styled “first activist” appeared to strike the right tone on Sunday as he told activists that they “must move on from talking about [independence] process to talking about policy”. “It is with honesty that I tell you there is no short cut that will get us independence”, he said. “I tell you what will: listening, campaigning and persuading.”
Rhetoric aside, the reason Yousaf needs a new strategy for independence is because activists failed to embrace former first minister Nicola Sturgeon’s “Plan C” for independence: to fight the next UK election, expected in 2024, on the single issue of separation. (If you are keeping track, Plan A was to win a majority for IndyRef2 at Holyrood in the 2021 elections in the hope of persuading UK ministers to back it; Plan B was to pursue a bill anyway and take the UK government to the Supreme Court).
But to suggest that Sturgeon’s “de facto referendum” gambit was Plan C is, in truth, pretty generous. Under Sturgeon, a post IndyRef1 Plan A (so essentially Plan B) was contained in the SNP’s 2015 election manifesto: to hold a referendum by the end of 2017. This was later scrapped in favour of a “common sense” vote in the autumn of 2018. When this approach was found wanting, Sturgeon talked up a new “referendum bill” which would see IndyRef2 held before the end of the Scottish parliamentary session in May 2021. Then came Sturgeon’s plan to win a majority at the 2021 for IndyRef2 at Holyrood, and her subsequent defeat in the Supreme Court.
Now in 2023, the SNP is running out of alphabet — and the ostensible strategic consensus Yousaf cohered this conference was therefore not before its time.
So what does the road to Scottish independence now look like? According to SNP activists, it runs through winning a majority of Scottish seats at the next general election. Then the Scottish government, currently composed of pro-independence SNP and Scottish Green ministers, would “begin immediate negotiations with the UK government to give democratic effect to Scotland becoming an independent country”.
Speaking in the debate, Yousaf described the “de facto referendum” plan of his predecessor as the “wrong approach”. The FM’s messaging works as a signal that the strategic gimmicks of the Sturgeon years are behind the SNP — and delegates voted overwhelmingly, and therefore symbolically, in favour of his new approach. Another significant moment came when Joanna Cherry, a perennial thorn in the side of Sturgeon’s leadership, signalled she would back Yousaf’s motion. Cherry had a dig at Sturgeon, saying that under Yousaf and Westminster Group leader Stephen Flynn, the SNP was returning to being a party of “respectful and reasoned debate”.
But Cherry also won a concession from the leadership with her plan for a constitutional convention set to be “constituted by the MPs elected to Westminster. MSPs and representatives of civic Scotland”. It means a further, if vague, tactical shift (details beyond the body’s composition are conspicuously absent).
The question that flows from all this is does Yousaf really think there will be mileage in, after the next election, declaring a mandate for independence of a majority of Scottish parliamentary seats — with a convention somewhere along the line?
On the surface, it seems politically maladroit — a strategy to sure up the SNP base rather than a plan for independence. Because there is simply no chance of Westminster, whoever is in government after 2024, regarding a majority of seats won at a general election as an expression of Scotland’s “settled will” in favour of independence.
Indeed, this was the strategy the SNP opted for in 2017; and the party fell victim to significant unionist tactical voting campaign. There is the possibility, therefore, albeit a distant one, that the SNP might not win a majority of Scottish seats in 2024 — especially considering the rise of Scottish Labour over recent months.
In this way, Yousaf appears to be storing up pain for his party, and, despite the rhetoric, retreating into the realm of strategic gimmicks that characterised Sturgeon’s tenure as first minister.
Here are some further outstanding questions: how will Yousaf frame the narrative post-2024 when Westminster inevitably says “no” to his calls for negotiations? What might this mean for the Holyrood election in 2026? Cherry, for one, who backed Yousaf on his general election strategy, has said the option of a “de facto referendum” strategy should be kept open — including for the 2026 Scottish parliament election.
The first minister’s key line so far this conference — that “there is no shortcut that will get us to independence” — is belied by his strategy which, in essence, professes to offer exactly that.
It is also worth bearing in mind the paths not taken by the SNP in Aberdeen. Pete Wishart, the veteran MP, argued at conference that the party should treat every election as a de-facto referendum and that “we keep on doing it — until they properly engage, or we win, which we will most definitely do”.
The SNP also rejected another amendment from Cherry that suggested a majority of votes for pro-independence parties — therefore, including outfits like former first minister Alex Salmond’s Alba party and the Scottish Greens — would operate as a mandate for independence.
Of course, both Cherry and Wishart’s amendments do not square the circle regarding Westminster’s ability to refuse to engage on IndyRef2. But Yousaf will need to further explain over the coming weeks and months why his strategy is a realistic way forward for independence — with other options rejected.
And all the while, Scottish Labour will be sitting back watching the turmoil unfold. Alex Salmond has said he feels like he is “witnessing a car crash in slow motion” as Labour closes the gap on the SNP in the polls. The end of the the party’s 16-year ascendancy in Scotland, despite some personal wins for Humza Yousaf over the past few days, has, in this way, never seemed more likely.
So, has SNP conference helped combat the perception that the party is at a strategic dead end? No.
There will also be no disguising the fact that when parliament returns at 2.30 pm today, there will be two fewer Scottish nationalists among the SNP Westminster group, (following Cameron’s defection and the Rutherglen by-election loss), than there were when it rose. In 2024, after a difficult general election for the party, there may be considerably less still. But, in this eventuality, Yousaf will nonetheless argue that the result operates as a mandate to open negotiations about IndyRef2.
That is the trajectory the SNP has now decided for itself.
Josh Self is Editor of Politics.co.uk, follow him on Twitter here.
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