Does SNP’s independence strategy need a rethink? - Lesley Riddoch

Westminster leader Ian Blackford MP delivers his address at the opening of the 2019 SNP autumn conference. Picture: PA
Westminster leader Ian Blackford MP delivers his address at the opening of the 2019 SNP autumn conference. Picture: PA
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‘We don’t need to be talking about Plan B when we have a perfectly good Plan A.’

Nicola Sturgeon’s assertion on the Marr show - repeated by Westminster leader Ian Blackford during the opening day of SNP conference - was fairly emphatic. The procedural vote against changing the agenda to debate Plan B was also overwhelming. Yet a privately commissioned opinion poll published the same day, suggested eight out of ten SNP voters believe the party should ditch the “official” Section 30 referendum route to independence if Westminster rejects the next request.

So, does that mean conference delegates are out of line and more cautious than ordinary voters?

Clearly, it’s one thing to oppose a leadership position within the privacy of a polling operation - quite another to derail conference in full sight of everyone on network TV. Yet members did just that with the NATO vote in 2012, land reform in 2015 and the Growth Commission this April. Does yesterday’s decision not to debate Plan B therefore mean SNP delegates are lining up full square behind the leadership?

Probably yes - but it could mean a few other things as well.

Firstly, loyal delegates are very aware that division on the central aim of independence will grab very negative headlines. Other issues - even NATO membership - are not as pivotal. Openly questioning the leadership on independence strategy would be portrayed as a vote of no confidence in Nicola Sturgeon. And hardly any delegates want that.

Secondly, there’s evidence that the FM’s softly, softly approach is slowly paying off. A Sunday newspaper poll found record support for independence and a potentially game-changing belief than Scotland will be economically better off as an independent EU member than a part of Brexited Britain. The shift towards Yes might seem glacially slow, but for many delegates, it’s not the right time to rock the boat.

Thirdly, the threat of a Plan B debate may have been enough, because some details about Plan A have finally emerged. The First Minister’s revealed she’ll make a new Section 30 request “within weeks” when the Referendum Bill’s completed its passage through Holyrood, and although the request will be rejected out of hand, that lets the party include an explicit mandate to reverse Westminster’s decision in its next General Election manifesto. The SNP leader also made clear in a Sunday newspaper that if Jeremy Corbyn reaches Number Ten, the price for SNP support will be the right to hold indyref2.

Finally, this is a time of unprecedented uncertainty. With all the twists and turns that lie ahead, who can yet be sure a strategy has run its course?

There are a lot of good reasons to haud yer wheesht.

But will Plan A handle the Doomesday scenario that could unfold on Tuesday? If Boris agrees the Irish Sea border solution, manages to dress it up as a towering achievement and secures the support of rebel Tory MPs and the abstention of hesitant, Labour, Plan A looks stone deid, as a victorious Boris sweeps all before him in the General Election that will inevitably follow.

A Tory election victory, after a Boris Brexit deal, seems at least as likely as No Deal and its hypothetical aftermath.

And even though resolution of the Irish border question won’t help parts of the Scottish farming and fishing industries survive in a market flooded with tariff-free imports, won’t guarantee frictionless trade or help a quarter of a million EU nationals decide if they can still call Scotland home - despite all this, the deal may well go through, with exhausted politicians, civil servants and voters quietly thanking the heavens that Britain hasn’t fallen off a Brexit cliff-edge.

If Boris the magician does pull off this conjuring trick, where does that leave the SNP’s legal and orderly route for a section 30 order?

Stalled, perhaps for five horrible years.

Now that doesn’t mean the head of steam built up over Brexit will instantly dissipate. The UK Government might have managed to avoid setting the precedent for Scotland of a real but essentially unpoliced, problem-free, frictionless border on Ireland. But any deal based on dumping the DUP and placing the Irish border in the Irish Sea (as the EU suggested in 2017) will also highlight the unfairness facing Scotland, which had a larger Remain vote than Northern Ireland, but no similar bespoke solution to stay within the EU Customs Union and Single Market - even though that’s precisely the compromise first suggested by the Scottish Government three years ago.

Furthermore, as Brexit grinds on - and with trade talks it will grind on for years - Scots will have not one but two galling points of comparison. The first is the Irish Republic - making the best of a bad Brexit job and building trade routes to the continent, bypassing Britain because the country is independent and protected by Europe. The second is Northern Ireland, long the poor relation amongst Celtic cousins, but perhaps set to enjoy unparalleled freedom of movement within the EU and the island of Ireland, and the best of both worlds - somehow operating within both the EU and British Customs Unions without having had to extract a Section Anything from Westminster.

So, the pressure for a different constitutional settlement won’t disappear if Boris reaches a deal. But the way to achieve independence might have to -- not necessarily ditching the Section 30 strategy but re-thinking how to win it.

Many opposition MPs quietly back the idea of a second referendum before a General Election, and plan to insist during Saturday’s emergency sitting of parliament, that any Boris deal is subject to such a public vote. Of course, Jeremy Corbyn and Jo Swinson appeared to torpedo plans for a temporary government all over again this weekend. But a Boris deal might concentrate minds and a People’s Vote might winkle Section 30 guarantees out of opposition parties far quicker than Plan A.

So, there’s a lot at stake this week, yet little of this debate about strategy - bubbling away in branches, Yes groups, conference café areas and AUOB marches -- will formally surface at conference. SNP delegates are too canny, disciplined and loyal. That doesn’t mean their worries about toeing the line and missing referendum opportunities have been resolved.