The three-day Scottish National Party (SNP) conference kicked off last Sunday, shortly before Scotland failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia after a 2-2 draw with Slovenia. Manager Gordon Strachan has since left the role, and many conference attendees will have been hoping for a more energising display from SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon as concerns mount over her leadership and the party’s future direction.
The shelving of a second independence referendum following the recent loss of nearly a third of the SNP’s seats in Westminster in the June General Election has put the nationalist party at a crossroads. Pressure is increasing from Labour and the Greens on one flank and the Conservatives on the other. Did SNP tacticians successfully handle these issues at the first party conference to not be held before a major political event?
The first thing many attendees noticed on receiving their conference packs was that the SNP has sought to distance itself slightly from Sturgeon as a figurehead. Her image was markedly absent from branding and she only gave one speech throughout the three days. Questions have been raised as opinion polls show that both Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson are viewed more positively, despite the SNP’s dominance in the Scottish Parliament.
However, her keynote speech packed out the Glasgow auditorium and she was regularly interrupted by standing ovations, despite only giving passing mentions to independence, seen by many as the SNP’s primary issue.
A credible, long term government
Instead, Sturgeon’s speech sought to draw attention to the issue of governance. The SNP still polls 17% higher than Labour and the Conservatives despite having been in power for over a decade, and the leader emphasised the party’s commitment to Scottish citizens in protecting them from the worst of Conservative policy from Westminster – for example, in providing free university and prescriptions, or topping up benefits where they have been cut. She also pointed out the damage that Conservative schemes like Universal Credit have caused to the country, noting the 12,000 young people who would lose over £1,000 per year thanks to housing benefit caps.
In doing so, Sturgeon has manoeuvred to fend off pressure from the Scottish Conservatives, who were the main beneficiaries of their general election slump, picking up 12 of the 21 SNP seats lost. She may also have been hoping to subtly point out the divide between Scotland and the rest of the UK in the run-up to a potential ‘no deal Brexit’, which could reignite calls for independence.
It was the party’s policy promises which grabbed most of the headlines, however. With Labour continuing its nationwide surge and the Greens increasingly targeting seats in the Scottish Parliament, Sturgeon announced a raft of progressive measures across all areas. Most notable was the promise to create a public energy company by 2021 to provide cheaper, greener power to Scottish residents, taking advantage of the country’s enormous renewable potential. This would be supported by a ‘New Investment Bank’ focusing not on “bonuses and dividends, but…in the national interest”, much like UK Green Investment Bank privatised by the Conservatives this year. A new Economic Development Agency will be tasked with ensuring wealth is distributed to the more remote, rural regions of Scotland.
Other policy announcements seek to tackle burgeoning problems in the country, including doubling investment in early years education and granting bursaries for professionals to retrain as STEM field teachers. This is backed by a commitment to offer the most generous childcare provision in the UK, which crucially would apply whether or not parents are in work. Sturgeon also pledged to build 50,000 affordable homes by 2021, provide free sanitary products and ‘baby boxes’, and exempt carers from council tax, among other announcements.
While the policies were sparse in details, Labour and Green willingness to discuss raising taxes seems to have enabled the SNP to do likewise, with Sturgeon saying she was ‘open minded’ about raising income tax for high earners. SNP Finance Secretary Derek Mackay has already written to other party leaders for proposals on raising taxes, although only the Green Party and the Liberal Democrats have responded to date.
Patience is a virtue
It seems therefore that Sturgeon and the SNP are looking to bide their time and consolidate the party’s position after recent scares. With the Catalonia independence debacle ongoing, and Brexit set to divide opinion around the UK, Scottish independence has been momentarily placed on the backburner, while still being touched on enough to energise more single-minded party supporters.
Moving Sturgeon out of the spotlight and focusing on counteracting Conservative policy from Westminster through bolder progressive governance will ensure the party protects its dominance of Scottish politics against incursions from the left and right. In an environment of political turbulence, patience is the name of the game.