HAVING reached this crucial stage, the SNP stands on the brink of two very different futures, says Euan McColm
In a little over a decade, SNP conferences have transformed. Where once they were fairly shambolic affairs, largely populated by men with Co-op bags full of raffle tablet and unvarnished views about the English, they are now models of modern political campaigning.
In Aberdeen, over the past two days, Scottish Nationalists have gathered for their final conference before 18 September’s independence referendum. It has been a punchy affair, built around two rallying speeches, one by First Minister Alex Salmond and the other by his deputy, Nicola Sturgeon.
It’s a measure of how disciplined the SNP has become that these speeches are the big news of the conference. It really is not so very long ago that some gaffe or other, a thoughtless comment about US foreign policy at a fringe meeting or horse-scaring support for a republic by a minister, would have dominated reports.
This transformation has taken place because of two things. First, and most obviously, because of exceptionally strong leadership. Salmond changed the way the SNP campaigns, putting mainstream issues before independence, and members can look at two Holyrood election victories as solid proof that he was right to do so.
The second thing is that the party’s members have changed. They can see the sense in doing things differently these days.
Yet, much as it has transformed, there is more change yet to come for the SNP. The conference in Aberdeen was the last gathering of the party as it now is. By the time the Nationalists meet, in October, for their next conference, the SNP will be an entirely different entity.
Having reached this crucial stage, the SNP stands on the brink of two very different futures.
Should Scots vote Yes then the next conference will be a victory rally to mark the end of an 80-year journey, and there will be much talk of building a nation.
But there will also be – for the first time in a long while – some serious ideological discussion to be had. It is often said that the Yes Scotland campaign is a broad church, holding fellow travellers whose reasons for, and vision of, independence differ wildly. The same can be said of the SNP, among whose membership we can find those on the left and the right, and those in the centre.
The discipline necessary to reach victory would have to give way to some to-ing and fro-ing on how an independent Scotland might start out. Sturgeon’s message to Labour voters on Friday that they should vote Yes to reclaim their party in an independent Scotland perhaps gives some idea from where the Deputy First Minister might want us to begin (in the middle, then left a bit).
Others near the top of the party have a differently nuanced vision of a Scotland without the UK.
Should Scots vote No, then the next SNP conference will be a different affair, again. But not necessarily a wake.
A No vote would present certain challenges for the Nationalists, of course. A number of the SNP’s political opponents have sought comfort in the belief that a victory for the Better Together campaign would mean catastrophe for the Nationalists. The logic is that, having come to the very brink of victory and then failed, the SNP will inevitably split into rancorous factions. We can see how this is an easy and comforting thing to believe. But it’s naive.
Pro-United Kingdom campaigners would be mistaken to believe that, despite the very public insistence that it will win the day, the SNP has not considered the possibility of referendum defeat.
Those at the top recognise that referendum defeat would necessitate the creation of what key people are calling a “revised offer” from the SNP. This is not something that the SNP will come up with on the back of a fag packet on 19 September. Defeat in the referendum is navigable but only with good forward planning. SNP strategists are preparing for either result in the referendum.
The biggest decision the SNP will face in the event of a No vote in September will be where to place independence in its redrafted list of priorities.
There will be some in the SNP (including people at a senior level) who would see narrow defeat as reason enough to launch a swashbuckling bid to ask the Scottish people again, sooner rather than later.
The risk there, of course, is that the SNP would risk looking like a single issue party. Just like it did in the old days.
Scottish Parliament election results show us that the Nats have moved way past that point in public perception. Why else would so many No voters have chosen to support the SNP in 2007 and 2011 if that was not so?
Current nationalist spin is that momentum is with the Yes campaign but the truth is that there is not much change in the polls since the campaign began more than a year ago. Just this week, a survey confirmed the Yes campaign was stalled, languishing 12 points behind Better Together.
Comfort for Nationalists comes with the SNP’s continuing lead over its opponents when it comes to voting intentions. The Nationalists now lead Labour in polling on European, Holyrood and Westminster elections.
The inescapable conclusion we must reach from polling on both the referendum and elections is that Scottish voters are completely unfazed by the idea of the SNP losing in September.
It is the need to retain the trust of those No-voting Scots that should shape the SNP’s next move in the event of referendum defeat. I believe an understanding of this will see independence parked as an issue if the Nationalists lose in September.
I was particularly interested in the point made to me by one senior party figure last week that the failure so far of unionist parties to come up with a solid offer on increased devolution leaves the Nationalists in a position to lead on the issue even if independence is rejected.
Having worked so hard to win power, the SNP won’t easily give it up. «