Leaders: Questions for Nicola Sturgeon

SNP's radical newbies want to know whether victory in May will mean another referendum. Picture: Ian Rutherford

SNP's radical newbies want to know whether victory in May will mean another referendum. Picture: Ian Rutherford

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THE Scottish National Party gathers for its annual conference on Friday in high spirits, despite its defining goal of independence having been rejected by the Scottish people in the referendum on 18 September. Membership of the party has soared to an extraordinary 80,000-plus, and polls suggest 52 per cent of Scots voters are planning to vote for the nationalists in the UK general election next spring.

But if Scots do put their cross next to the SNP candidate on 7 May, what exactly will they be voting for? Will they be voting for another referendum on independence, to give Scotland a second chance of leaving the UK? Many of the party’s new members are enthusiastically in favour of this. They regard the referendum defeat as a slim one. They note with delight the polls suggesting that if the referendum was to be held again, the Yes side would triumph, with 52 per cent of the vote. They believe the pro-UK parties will fail to deliver on their vow of significant new powers for Holyrood, further boosting the Yes cause. Defeat in September, they believe, was just a temporary setback. If, as many polls suggest, the SNP gains a majority of seats in the general election in six months’ time, surely, these new members argue, that will mean a second bite at the cherry?

The SNP newbies may be in for a disappointment, as their can-do positivism comes up against orthodox SNP pragmatism. Since the creation of the Scottish Parliament, UK general elections have never been fertile territory for the SNP. While the party has gone from strength to strength in Holyrood elections, Scots have chosen to treat Westminster elections as primarily a Labour-Tory tussle for who gets to be UK prime minister. As a result, the SNP vote tends to suffer. In 2010, for example, the nationalist share of the Scottish vote failed to reach 20 per cent, and was only 79,000 votes ahead of the Tories. Knowing this, the SNP has often chosen to take its foot off the gas, financially speaking, and save its campaigning cash for the far more important Holyrood elections. And an orthodoxy has developed in the SNP that the election in which the party seeks a mandate for an independence referendum is the Holyrood election, not the Westminster election. The question now is whether that is still the case.

In her interview with Peter Ross in this newspaper today, Nicola Sturgeon seems to suggest so, saying that if Scotland is to get another vote on leaving the UK, “people will have to vote for another referendum in a Scottish election”. Given the upbeat mood of the Yes movement, desperate to press home their advantage while they have it, this may be a hard sell for the new party leader. But sell it she must.

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Few in the SNP hierarchy expect Scottish Labour to do as poorly in May as the polls suggest. The new members have to accept that there is no guarantee, either, that a referendum will be in the SNP manifesto for the 2016 Holyrood elections. Sturgeon says in her interview today that she will make a decision on that towards the end of 2015.

If the Smith Commission delivers more than the cynics suggest, and the Tories lose the general election, and there is no longer a threat of an in-out referendum on Europe, support for independence may well subside.

SNP members old and new, as well as the voters the party seeks to win next May, will be looking to Sturgeon this coming weekend for clarification. Will the SNP manifesto for the general election contain a promise to hold another referendum if the SNP emerges with a majority of Scottish votes or seats? Will an SNP victory next May be a mandate for another indyref? Yes or no? It is a simple question, and one Sturgeon will find it difficult to avoid. The voters will want to know as the campaign looms. But first Sturgeon has to tell – and convince – her newly radicalised party. That may be easier said than done.

Schools must do more to tackle homophobia

THE battles in the early years of devolution about the scrapping of Section 2a – the pernicious Tory legislation that prevented open discussion in schools about homosexuality – were a bruising and difficult time in Scotland. Some sections of society, including some churches, some politicians and, notably, tycoon Brian Souter, fought tooth and nail to keep this law on the statute book.

It was greatly to the credit of the then Labour-led Scottish Executive that it resisted intense pressure and insisted the law be consigned to history. It is worth reminding ourselves what that this legislation outlawed. It ruled that schools “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” or “promote the teaching … of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”. Looked at from the vantage point of the present day, in a Scotland that has legalised gay marriage with overwhelming support from the general public, with a gay woman leading the Scottish Conservative party and a gay man running Glasgow City Council, it is hard to believe that the Section 2a furore was just 14 years ago. It seems a relic of much darker and less enlightened time. We might allow ourselves the assumption that Scottish schools are now ready and prepared to discuss homosexuality in a non-judgmental and positive manner. And yet it seems this is not the case.

The study by Stonewall that we report today makes disturbing reading. Teachers’ inaction when faced with pupils’ use of homophobic language is bad enough, but what is far more worrying is the apparent ignorance of teachers regarding their legal position on discussing homosexuality with pupils. That is an atrocious state of affairs, and bodes ill for any young person who hopes to find a sympathetic ear and a helpful word of guidance from their teacher.

Two particular findings demand an explanation from Scottish ministers. Why is it that primary teachers in Scotland are almost four times more likely than teachers south of the border to say that homophobic bullying or name-calling happens often in their schools? And why is it that Scottish teachers are significantly more likely to report their school does not have a policy on the problem?

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