Insight: SNP gets set to look forward at conference

Onwards but possibly not upwards: First Minister Alex Salmond. Picture: Reuters
Onwards but possibly not upwards: First Minister Alex Salmond. Picture: Reuters
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With polling putting support for independence at 28%, Alex Salmond needs his party’s conference slogan to ring true this week

‘WE ARE going to reach Pyongyang levels of unity and happiness. It is going to be a love-in of unprecedented proportions,” declares one senior SNP figure. This time last year, the SNP conference paid witness to a soul-searching debate about its future, as members narrowly decided to support Nato in a move that exposed deep divisions to the public eye. The time for breast-beating debate has passed however. The last SNP autumn conference before the party’s date with destiny next September needs to portray something a little less divisive. The conference slogan – “FORWARD” – couldn’t be simpler. There will be no going anywhere else.

Only time will tell whether the party’s annual get-together in Perth at the end of this week is the prelude to a history-making victory next September, or the last fizzing spark of a political rocket that has been soaring ever higher for the last five years. Whatever it turns out to be, the party this week is putting on quite a show. Last year, 15 diplomats turned up to watch Alex Salmond and his defence spokesman Angus Robertson narrowly win the policy change backing Nato membership. This year, fully 50 representatives of foreign administrations are showing up – including visitors from the USA, Japan, Qatar, Australia, Germany, France, Nigeria and Cuba – all preparing to jot down their thoughts for their respective capitals on the potential revolution brewing in Scotland. Foremost in the dispatches they will be writing home this time next week will be a summary of the speech being given by Salmond next Saturday, in which the First Minister can be expected to confidently predict a Yes vote next September. But they will also be reporting home on the fact that, despite all the hoopla surrounding the referendum roadshow, the people of the country seem utterly un-moved. It follows another poll on Friday last week which found that, among those certain to vote, only 28 per cent plan to back Salmond up. The hours and hours of campaigning already expended in this marathon campaign appear to be making very little difference on the surface. Consequently, some pro-independence supporters privately concede a victory is “unlikely”. Is there anything that Salmond and the SNP can do this week in Perth to change that mood?

THEY will begin that task this week by using some unusual sources – their pro-UK opponents. Fearing accusations that they are “talking Scotland down”, pro-UK politicians have all stuck by the script in recent months to agree that Scotland could indeed prosper as an independent nation (former Nato general secretary Lord Robertson, for example, said last month that “of course we’ve got the economic vitality and we’ve got the people and we’ve got the resources”). The script may indeed have shown them being positive about the country. But the ever-opportunistic SNP are now capitalising on it. This week, Alex Salmond’s aides say they will be “deploying a range of statements from No campaign politicians” to help underline their case that Scotland “has was it takes”. The only thing blocking the advance of the Yes vote, they argue, are peoples’ doubts over how an independent Scotland would fare economically. Deal with those concerns, goes the theory, and the No vote suddenly becomes very soft. And by neutralising the economic question, they add, it means that the Yes side can pose the choice facing Scottish voters in a very different way. “It enables Yes to frame the argument in terms of where government decisions for Scotland are best made: Westminster or Scotland,” say aides. This ensures the referendum is fought on the independence campaign’s ground – with polls suggesting that, when put in those terms, people chose Scotland every time. It is based on those findings that Salmond likes to claim that there is a “natural majority” for independence in the country.

So conference this week will be aiming to highlight that choice at every moment (and throw some of the questions back on to the No side) and the decisions of the Westminster system. Conference resolutions are planned on getting rid of the bedroom tax after independence, and on the “choice of two futures Scotland has between Yes and No”. The aim of the campaign is to try and show people that they are at a fork in the road, and that a No vote has consequences too – more Westminster rule. It is put in stark terms by former party leader Gordon Wilson, who is speaking at a fringe event this week. How does the party persuade undecideds to vote Yes? “You demonstrate that the British Union is set up to safeguard the prosperity of the south of England,” he declares. “If you vote No, then you are voting for the sustained prosperity of the south of England and London which is bleeding the provinces dry.” Who says it’s only the No side who can do scare-mongering?

And party chiefs also want the SNP this week to show that independence is more than just a preoccupation of the party faithful and the already convinced. The YesScotland campaign has attempted and struggled to put up this bigger tent over the last year – with the controversy over the authenticity of “Labour for Independence” showing mixed results. Now, say strategists, the SNP itself needs to do so as well and “broaden out” beyond its base and show it can reach out (after all, even in the 2011 Holyrood landslide, the SNP failed to win more than 50 per cent of the vote). The call is reflected in a lecture to be given by Scotland on Sunday columnist and former SNP MSP Andrew Wilson who, as we report today, will tell SNP activists at the conference that pro-UK party figures should be involved in negotiating the post-independence deal with the remainder of the United Kingdom. His proposal even raises the prospect of Lord Forsyth, the former Conservative Secretary of State for Scotland and SNP bête noire, being hired as part of the national effort. Everyone in Scotland (even Lord Forsyth), Wilson will argue, has a stake in the result next year; the country must therefore prepare to come together after the divisiveness of the campaign. It sends out a clear message to the party – that if it wants to win, then it has to widen its sights. That broader vision is also reflected in a distinctly frosty attitude to the fringe parties such as the Greens which make up the YesScotland grouping. Many of this group have been arguing for unpopular ideas such as a new Scottish currency and the abolition of the Queen. One seasoned SNP figure declares: “There’s been a change of mood. We’re asking people, ‘Look, are you here to make yourselves feel good, or are you here to win this thing?’ We are not playing the Greens’ game any more.”

BUT nervousness and a lack of belief is tangible beneath the surface. One party figure who asked not to be named said he feared that the imminent publication of the SNP government’s white paper – now scheduled for the second half of November – will backfire spectacularly on the party, ruining any momentum the conference might give them. “The white paper is just going to give fresh ammunition to the No camp. By coming up with specific things they will be able to attack. And the firepower of the British government is much bigger than the firepower of the Scottish Government.” There is also an acknowledgment from some that the pro-UK campaign’s key line of attack – that the SNP is saying one thing in private, and another in public – is having an impact, given the number of opportunities the Scottish Government is giving them to wheel it out, as was seen in the row last week over the use of North Sea oil cash.

Despite the buzz that SNP activists will enjoy this week, one sobering fact contained within last week’s TNS poll shows that, among people who voted SNP in 2011, only just over half actually say they are currently going to vote for independence next year (the other half will either vote no or are undecided). The clear task, therefore, is to spread the word from well beyond the hall and the bars in Perth. Salmond’s speech next Saturday has a high bar to clear. «

Twitter: @EddieBarnes23