Ian Swanson: SNP in great shape for Sturgeon

IT shouldn’t really be like this. The SNP threw everything it had at persuading the ­people of Scotland to go for independence, only to see the No ­campaign win the referendum by a clear ten percentage points – yet the party goes into its annual conference this weekend on an unprecedented high.

Its membership has more than trebled, opinion polls show it set to win a swathe of seats in next year’s Westminster elections and its main opponent, the Labour Party, is in disarray.

Despite losing the referendum, the SNP’s prospects have never seemed so good.

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And the gathering in Perth, which begins tomorrow, will mark the start of a new chapter for the party.

Nicola Sturgeon will be officially installed as the new SNP leader and Alex Salmond will deliver his ­farewell address as he bows out after his ­second ten-year stint at the helm.

The last time Mr Salmond quit the top job, back in 2000, things were not looking nearly so rosy for the Nationalists. The Scottish Parliament was just over a year old and the SNP did not seem to be making the most of devolution. Its result in the 1999 ­elections had been disappointing, there was constant in-fighting and Mr Salmond was under fire for his ­“lacklustre” performance.

By the time he came back as leader in 2004, the situation was even worse – the party had lost eight of its 35 seats in the 2003 Scottish Parliament elections and its vote in the European elections had also fallen. But over the past ten years the SNP’s position has been transformed. The party’s one-seat edge over Labour in the 2007 Holyrood elections gave it the chance to prove itself in government.

Its re-election with an unprecedented overall majority in 2011 showed it had more than succeeded.

Even after seven years in power, the SNP remains popular and all the signs suggest it will win again in 2016.

The referendum result was, of course, a huge disappointment for the Nationalists, many of whom had campaigned for independence all their lives. But to get 45 per cent of Scots to vote Yes was a remarkable achievement and the continuing enthusiasm of the campaign supporters has taken even the Yes leaders by surprise. But the SNP cannot afford to bask too long in the Indian summer of post-referendum politics. If it hopes to call another referendum at some stage, there needs to be a rigorous examination of where the campaign fell short.

Why did it fail to convince key groups of voters? What were the weak points in the arguments?

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And while the surge in membership – from 25,000 to more than 80,000 –means plenty foot soldiers for future campaigns, it also brings its own problems. The leadership has no idea who most of their new recruits are or what views they hold.

After managing to bring an impressive degree of discipline to the party, they could now be faced with members more prone to speak their mind, who will demand dramatic changes to a whole range of policies.

Given that the influx has come from the ranks of the Yes campaign, it seems likely many of the new recruits will be hawkish on making independence the focus of everything.

And since many Yes campaigners were on the left, it could be the new members will also want to see the party move in that direction. Whether that fits with the way the leadership wants to go is another matter.

Ms Sturgeon will bring her own thinking and style to the role, but she starts off with a party in better shape than anyone could have expected just a few months ago.