Why was SNP conference so flat?
An air of uncertainty dominated the party conference
Debate is not an optional extra
I’d like to preface this edition of the newsletter with a few points about the need for debate in the independence movement. The criticisms I and others have been making over a period of years now are focussed on the decision making and the strategy of the SNP leadership. These are always political, and never personalised.
As it stands I think the independence movement, such as it is, can probably endure one more phase of demoralisation. If this does come to pass, as I think it will on the current trajectory, the discussion is likely to become more terse. This is typical to all social movements who experience defeat, now, and throughout history.
Part of the point in Independence Captured is to attempt to counteract this. But that can only come through a higher level of debate, a serious exchange of ideas and independent thinking. Indeed, that is required not just when it comes to questions around independence strategy. It is needed in the here and now on matters around domestic policy.
If you are a new subscriber, I’d encourage you to read the introduction and overview to the newsletter here, which also provides information on my own engagement and track record when it comes to pro-independence activism over the years.
Why so flat?
There are a great many SNP members who do admirable work. In their community, in the trade union movement, in campaigns and elsewhere. After 2014, the SNP turned into a genuinely mass party. Over 100,000 joined. With their money, votes and activism and the broad popularity of Nicola Sturgeon combined with the faultlines left by the referendum, the party came to dominate Scottish politics.
But as we have detailed in the past, that new membership were never empowered. Instead, there has been a steady decline in engagement, leaving the party leadership free to ride above internal democracy. All the while, economic policy and the prospectus for independence itself was farmed out to the corporate lobby.
This has resulted in the prioritisation of foreign and private capital as an organising principle of government, outsourcing to consultancy firms who are geared towards privatisation and a hard nosed economic liberalism when it comes to public sector spending.
It has been repeated many times on Independence Captured that the movement of 2014 didn’t just spook the British establishment, but the Scottish one too. Since then the SNP leadership has set out to defenestrate the mass membership, rather than have to deal with the pressure and accountablilty such things bring. It seems a rational decision for a leadership known for its managerialism. No doubt, it makes life easier.
But it also comes with costs. The insurgent, working class, constituency politicised by the referendum can no longer be seen at the SNP conference in the same way as it could in 2015. It feels smaller, with a large composition of staffers, elected members and those looking for a career in politics.
The air then, did not exactly fizz with excitement and anticipation. Of course, this jars with the idea that the party is on the cusp of the most important moment in its history. Without oppositional elements, the conference also lacked any sense of tension, far less dynamism. Indeed, even after dilluting the more radical impulses of the post-referendum membership, the party hierarchy squeezed every last bit of potential debate out of what was really a party rally without the buzz.
Thus, as we previously alerted readers, the motion from the SNP Trade Union Group on how tax powers might be utilised in relation to the cost of living crisis, was excluded from the agenda.
Indeed, to skewer any real discussion about economic policy at conference, the First Minister announced that a White Paper on the economics of Scottish independence would be published in the coming weeks, just as delegates and the media started arriving in Aberdeen. Neat timing, and standard conference and press management.
This is typical of the SNP leadership, whose main approach to politics is to “get through the day.” The elevation of public relations over policy, and soundbites over strategy, as far as the special advisors are concerned, is a winning one.
But the conference, as a result, felt tired. The banners hanging from the massive, air hanger like, ceilings are the same ones as before the pandemic. There are no new “IndyRef” materials. No posters, stickers, badges, leaflets. The hubbub of activity seen at previous conferences seemed distinctly absent.
In times gone by, independence supporters would gather outside the conference. You can’t expect that every year. But given the Supreme Court was to begin proceedings a single day after the conference, you might expect some kind of popular engagement with it.
This, to be fair, was made more difficult by the choice of venue, inside of which British Petroleum had a glittering, interactive stall with touch screens and slick looking brochures. Meanwhile, core parts of the independence movement, who have formed the intellectual framework when it comes to policy development, as well as grassroots campaigning organisations, were simply priced out.
Out with the old, in with the…old?
Despite the lack of excitement, we might have expected some new campaigning initiatives or announcements. To be fair, we did get, by my count, one. The National reported on it with a big, red, breaking news graphic. Keith Brown, the Deputy Leader of the SNP informed delegates and the world of a “significant new campaigning initiative”:
“We will soon launch a brand new broadcast platform, with the first episode of this brand new show covering the debate over Scotland’s future. We will bring you familiar and new voices to discuss the big issues surrounding the case for independence.
“So please, keep your eyes peeled online and in your email inbox for more details on this exciting development to be announced very soon. This new venture will bring to life our vision of a better, fairer, more sustainable Scotland.”
It’s worth looking at this example as it is reveals the essential operating procedure of the SNP leadership. Make an announcement that sounds interesting. Build into it the idea that they ramping up independence campaign and that they are ready for the challenge. But behind the fanfare inevitabley lies something far more banal.
As The National goes on to report: “It's understood that the regular show, expected to be put out in podcast form and titled Scotland's Voices, will promote the case for independence.” So, the “broadcast platform” is actually a podcast.
You don’t have to be a hardened critic to conclude that this project won’t get very far, and has been, to be generous, over sold. It will carry carefully curated “voices,” discussing sanitised topics that won’t upset the applecart. Because of this, it will attract a handful of independence supporters, but it won’t reach into the parts of the electorate who are as yet unconvinced.
In truth, that’s not the point. Rather, it is to show that something is being done, in order to placate a layer of the SNP membership and of the independence movement.
But it is a rehash of an old idea. Just like the messages we got from conference around currency. On this issue, the position doesn’t seem to have changed, ahead of the publication of the economics White Paper next week.
Notably, the First Minister admitted that “monetary policy would be governed by the Bank of England” for an undefined period after independence. Ian Blackford, the SNP Westminster group leader went further, with a full reiteration of the widely discredited Sterlingsation plan:
“We have to chose what is the best policy to deliver stability to the people of Scotland in the interim period after independence, and I would argue that the best way of doing that is retaining pound sterling in order that we show that we are credible as an independent country. That fiscally we are doing the right things, that we are creating jobs in Scotland and that we are creating that pathway to make that longer term decision about the currency choices that the people of Scotland chose to make. There are six economic tests that we have laid out that have to be met.”
This issue has been covered in detail in the newsletter, because it is a ruinous policy that would, as is now accepted, leave Scotland stranded without economic sovereignty even after independence. I’d encourage you to read the piece to gain a full understanding of the topic if it is something you are unfamiliar with.
We can only expect the coming White Paper to advocate a very similar, if not identical, position. If it doesn’t, it means that leading figures in the party are already on record as recently as a week before it is publication declaring that an independent Scotland must go through a period of Sterlingisation. That it would lead to instability if the country moved more directly to an independent currency and central bank, and that it would be fiscally irresponsible to make such a transition without meeting strict economic tests.
I have spoken to a wide range of SNP members at different levels in the party, who have relayed their unease, and in many cases outright opposition, to Sterlingisation. This is especially true after the experience of the pandemic and the present economic crisis.
Ian Blackford recently called for the UK parliament to be reconvened to address the volatility in the markets. Yet his plan for independence is for the UK financial institutions to retain economic control over Scotland, at the same time as sacrificing political representation in Westminster.
It is not just a rod up the back of the independence movement. It undermines the very idea of independence and sovereignty itself. Little wonder then that a motion arguing against this course of action was excluded from the conference agenda, despite being supported by at least a dozen party branches.
Here, for completeness, is the text of that resolution:
“Conference notes that significant changes have occurred since the Sustainable Growth Commission report was prepared and resolutions on its currency proposals debated by Conference: specifically, Scotland’s exclusion from the European Single Market following Brexit; and the massive government spending response to stabilise the economy during the Covid pandemic, only available to states with their own currency.
“Conference further notes that, while acknowledging the need for responsible economic management, there are compelling advantages to Scotland having its own currency after independence: in particular, giving the government of Scotland as much freedom as possible in formulating economic policy; avoiding any reliance on borrowing in a foreign currency; and applying to re-join the EU should that be the wish of the people of Scotland.
“Conference believes that changing circumstances, and the clear advantages from Scotland issuing its own currency justify a further refinement of the Party’s policy on currency, so that a post-independence Government would be able to introduce a new Scottish currency as soon as practicable following formal independence.
“Conference therefore calls on the Scottish Government to commit to taking all measures needed to permit the introduction of a Scottish currency, including the establishment of a Scottish Central Bank during the transition period between a Yes vote and formal independence; while leaving the timing and detailed implementation of a Scottish currency to the post-independence Government of Scotland.”
Conference hall uncertainty
It is understandable at a time like this, given the calibre and venality of the Tory leadership, that figures like the First Minister are a real pole of attraction. At the same time, it is precisely the weakness and widespread revulsion of the Tory government, that allows the SNP leadership to retain its popularity. This, despite a largely failing domestic agenda, an incoherent independence prospectus, and a lacklustre strategy for independence.
That’s why “detest gate” was a boon for the party. It reduced politics to performance, at a time when there is a need to challenge and scrutinise policy and governance. The context of Tory chaos and failure aided those making key note speeches at conference. If there was ever a time for independence, it was now, delegates were told.
Michael Russell, the SNP President and the party’s independence campaign coordinator made this point clear in his speech. This was the time to be making the arguments and winning people round, he said. But the tone of his address also struck a slightly odd note, with what felt like a soft criticism of those looking for stronger leadership on independence:
“Don’t ask when the campaign is starting. We are the campaign. And across Scotland we are well underway. We don’t need to ask for permission to campaign, that was given years ago, when you joined the party. Every member of this party is always permitted to campaign for our nation’s freedom.”
The hint of defensiveness here belied the fact that if you want to generate independence activism, you need materials, campaign infrastructure, and so forth. You need a real sense of strategy, and mechanisms through which to build momentum. Without that, what does he or anyone else expect independence supporters to be doing on a day to day basis? It’s little wonder he is being asked when it is all kicking off.
His speech contained no new ideas, no initiatives and no innovation. Russell didn’t seem to have a grasp of the strategy around the so-called “de facto” referendum at the next General Election, either. In a sense, I don’t blame him. The idea is unclear, ill thought out and has been badly transmitted. So when he was asked about the matter he had to resort to saying he didn’t want to get “bogged down in the detail” of what it actually meant. If you are going to propose a strategy in full view of the public, you also need to be able to defend it.
Angus Robertson, the Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, External Affairs and Culture, spoke in the same session. But his comments were already overshadowed by an interview on French television in which he seemed to cast doubt over the timing of a referendum. He only committed to saying a referendum would happen “at some stage” and that it would be “sooner or later.”
I remember Robertson speaking at an SNP conference in 2017 in which he said “there will be an independence referendum.” All of these statements are wide open to interpretation. They are not, strictly speaking, outright deceptions. But they have an inbuilt elasticity to them, as we explored in Referendum Olympics.
These are the two leading figures in the party who spoke in the only conference plenary devoted to independence strategy. Yet we get uncertainty and a sense of disorientation. It just doesn’t gel with the idea that this is an energised and strategically aligned party when it comes to delivering independence.
The Secretary for the Constitution is less than convinced that there will be a referendum next year, and publicly acknowledges it. The SNP President and director of the party’s “independence unit,” cannot confidently back the stated position around the “de facto” referendum. All so this in the middle of an SNP conference apparently on the precipice of its date with referendum destiny.
It doesn’t add up.
This air of unreality about a coming referendum was palpable too when Ian Blackford made an entirely predictable speech, reciting the same, well worn, jibes against Westminster. In his case, he chose not even to mention the Supreme Court hearings. More than that, he didn’t say the word “referendum” at all, never mind elucidating on strategy around it.
That is interesting, considering the Westminster leader hasn’t been so tight lipped on the issue in the past, even declaring in March of 2021, that a referendum could take place later that very year.
Indeed, he stated the following:
“There’s a bill that will be published over the coming weeks and that can be enacted once we’re on the other side of the election. Of course what I would say is that the first priority of the government is dealing with the COVID crisis…when we’ve got to that position of safety, that would be the right time to have the referendum. (Scottish constitution secretary Mike Russell) has talked about a six-month period once the legislation is triggered…”
It all stretches credulity. In 2021 we are told that there is a bill ready and waiting. It would take six months to turnaround a referendum. It could all, theoretically, happen that year. How alien is this to the reality of the situation? It always was. Some of us who pointed this out at the time were attacked for undermining the latest turn in the SNP “strategy.” Too cynical, too despondent. But it was never going to come to pass and it was never designed to in the first place. What is most fascinating, was the timing of his comments, coming just two months before from the Holyrood elections.
Examining these glaring inconsistencies, and the opportunism around elections, does not harm the independence cause. Failing to do so does. In my view, pretending they don’t exist also harms domestic politics, regardless of your view on the constitution. It distorts national political life, and it feeds a diet of false hope to people who face often desperate social and economic conditions.
An evergeen Sturgeon Speech
It was left, as ever, to the First Minister to pull the threads together. We might wonder how much other leading figures in the party actually know about what is going on. By that I am not questioning their intellect. More that the dispersal of information internally may be confounded by the centralism around the party leader and the Chief Executive. This is speculation, but perhaps it stands to reason.
Does Ian Blackford have a clue what the new paper on independence and economics contains when he is asked about currency? Does Mike Russell know exactly what is being proposed at the next General Election when he is asked about “de facto” referendums? Do MPs and MSPs have a sense of where it is all going? My suspicion is that, in general terms, they don’t. Just like activists and members, who if they were honest, know that Scottish independence is not in fact on the near horizon, thanks partly to the inaction of the SNP leadership over the years.
The First Minister received many standing ovations, for what was in fact a relatively cautious speech. The coming paper on the economy was mentioned, but currency wasn’t. The section on the Supreme Court was skimmed over. The main takeaway: we will accept the judgement of the court. A judgement that will be made on the basis of a weak position with the Lord Advocate herself conceding that she could not deal with the matter with the degree of confidence necessary.
The Supreme Court is not, in any technical sense, actually testing the right to Scottish self-determination. But should this route fail, and October 2023 is relegated to yet another front page that never came to pass, the matter will be taken to the next General Election.
Here, the First Minister made no reference to a “de facto” referendum, presented with some aplomb just months ago. Now, it appears this idea is being gently reassessed. As I wrote in a recent edition of this newsletter, the SNP leadership are following a strategy based on retaining the political power of their party, not the overall cause of independence. Independence, for that reason, will be prominent in the next election. But specifics of what this means in practice are up in the air.
There were no big announcements when it came to independence. The broad case was made, as we have heard many times before at SNP conferences. But this wasn’t a charging at the gates speech. It had a wariness about it. The First Minister spoke to the progress made around independence in the latest Social Attitudes Survey. But this kind of line felt like it segued more with open talk of her departure, and the associated legacy building, than it did towards energising the independence movement
We should, quite genuinely, have expected some more red meat. Something as simple as the launching of new campaign materials that members could take back to their branches, for example. The First Minister might have been joined on stage by some notable figures in Scottish public life, as a demonstration of the broad support for the right to self-determination. Or perhaps the call for a national day of action to build support for the campaign may have been issued. But such verve and elan is missing from the SNP these days.
Was there something, anything, to suggest that this was more than a run of the mill conference speech, given the supposed proximity to the referendum? It just didn’t materialise. There was nothing about the conference which felt like this was a party preparing to move to a campaign footing. The truth is, if people don’t believe independence is around the corner, they won’t fight for it as if it is.
The question is, does any of this matter to the SNP leadership? There is no organised internal opposition to consider. The SNP are polling strongly, after all these years. They have their eyes on the next General Election where there will be a stronger challenge from Labour. A Labour government, which we can be more confident will transpire given events, will change the dynamics around the national question too. On the basis of the available information, that is more likely to happen before independence is won.
But perhaps despite it all, another flat, but “successful,” conference will be toasted in the Heathrow lounge.
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