Nicola Sturgeon’s speech to the SNP conference was well-crafted and well delivered – you’d expect no less from a consummate politician. It was equally well received by delegates even if it was less revivalist than in past years. Some announcements had been trailed, others were delivered fresh to the excitement of party members and interest to the media. It certainly painted a picture of the fairer Scotland that she seeks.
However, of equal interest was what went unsaid. A second independence referendum, the EU and tax and the public services they provide were ignored or simply genuflected towards. They’ve been deferred or delayed. With some it’s understandable and sensible but with others its difficult, if not dangerous for the party.
On the date for another independence referendum, trumpeted last year, there was no mention. She’s already had to backtrack and a further delay was inevitable. There can be no second vote without clarity on Brexit. Putting the option on the table was sensible, being so gung ho thereafter most certainly wasn’t, as her former MSP colleagues who lost their seats in June can testify.
Brexit creates more problems than opportunities for the independence cause. It creates uncertainty which is unhelpful but also causes problems with issues, whether over the currency or a potential hard border with England.
Until there’s greater clarity it’s hard to see how you could call for a vote, never mind win one. The electorate will wish to know what the position is on them, never mind where Scotland and the rest of the UK will stand with the EU. Waiting to see where the UK goes is therefore almost certainly essential.
On the EU it’s harder for her as the negotiations and final outcome are beyond both her and Scotland’s control. That influence was lost with a No vote, despite 62 per cent here wishing to Remain. Accordingly, the most the SNP can do is seek to mitigate harm for Scotland, whether in the loss of powers to Holyrood or the damage of a hard Brexit. It’s frustrating and frightening, even given the incompetency of the UK representation, but it’s the reality.
However, it was noticeable in the First Minister’s comments that she was less effusive about the EU than in the past. That’s actually a sensible position to take as it was out of kilter with SNP voters and many members. More voted to stay but held their noses when doing so. The institution had failed to deliver on promises of a social as well as an economic union, compounded by its brutal treatment of the Greek people with its enforced austerity upon them.
Since then, it’s not just been their failure to condemn the brutal actions of the Spanish authorities in Catalonia, but their abandonment of any reproach to Poland and Hungary for repressive actions that run counter to why Europe evolved post-Second World War. The EU is losing its appeal for many and other options should now be considered, as well as being the likely outcome.
A hard Brexit would be calamitous and no deal disastrous, but alternative arrangements that allow for single market and customs union access may now be preferable. The SNP will just have to await the outcome but an agreed UK/EU position that allows for access without membership would seem the best outcome for the SNP. A similar position could then be sought for Scotland and issues over a hard border and trade avoided.
Of more concern though is the tax issue and the public services they provide. The party was warmed up to tax rises which is no surprise. They’re inevitable and it’s simply a question of how much and upon whom they will fall. The Scottish Government is constrained in that it can only really tax income, not wealth, which hamstrings it. Punitive taxes on the rich, even if popular, won’t work and could even be counterproductive. So, it will be a modest increase with a limited take.
It seems that she’s setting the scene for middle earners to pay more. That’s understandable and right. The Scottish middle class can’t expect the universal services they mainly benefit from without paying for them. In all likelihood it will be a rerun of Alex Salmond’s call in 1999 for a penny for Scotland.
However, though money will be ingathered, the government’s also increasing its expenditure with long overdue public sector pay rises. Yet people’s satisfaction with public services was diminishing and as a result their satisfaction with the First Minister. Even as conference was meeting complaints about stress on police services and financial pressures on health services were widely running.
More just can’t be done with less or even the same. Until a strategic retreat is made from some areas of expenditure or savings made through reform, then the creaks and groans from overburdened and under-resourced public services will only increase. It’s hard to see how a tax increase can shore up the current services, never mind allow for expansion of new ones.
Yet, it’s on that that both the Scottish Government and Nicola Sturgeon will be judged. The long-term vision is worthy but folk vote on the here and now. In that there’s a danger for her and her administration. New offerings are welcome but old essential services need to be maintained. Providing ever more offerings without making current services better won’t work.
So Nicola Sturgeon has laid out a vision of the land she seeks though it’s not one that can be obtained just yet. She’s sent delegates away reasonably contented but most of all she’s bought herself some time to reposition the party. Neither she nor the SNP are in control of the major issue that affects them in Brexit. They just need to await the outcome and be ready to move thereafter.
In the interim they need to maintain the credible and competent administration that saw them elected in the first place. That’s the priority and the dangers for her now lie there, not in the constitution.