Tom Peterkin: The massive elephant in the room at the SNP’s conference

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The lack of a debate on Andrew Wilson’s Growth Commission at SNP conference is a startling omission, writes Tom Peterkin.

Councillor Christopher McEleny is fast emerging as one of the SNP’s more colourful characters. Twice he has stood to be SNP depute leader. Twice he has been defeated, firstly by Angus Robertson, and most recently by Keith Brown, the former Economy Secretary who is now Nicola Sturgeon’s right-hand man as far as the party is concerned.

SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon at the party's conference in June. Picture: Getty Images

SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon at the party's conference in June. Picture: Getty Images

Despite being on the receiving end of comprehensive defeats, the Inverclyde councillor refuses to slide back into the relative obscurity of local authority politics.

It was earlier this month that Mr McEleny found himself in the headlines when the judge in an employment tribunal ruled that his support for Scottish independence qualified as a “philosophical belief”.

The conclusion was reached by judge Frances Eccles in a case that saw Mr McEleny pursue his former employer, the Ministry of Defence, claiming he had been unfairly targeted over his views.

The background to the case was that around the time of his first unsuccessful attempt to become SNP depute leader in 2016, he was told that his security clearance had been revoked for his job as an electrician at the MoD munitions site in Beith, North Ayrshire.

The SNP has been reluctant to talk about the massive elephant in the room, in the form of Andrew Wilson's Growth Commission report

The SNP has been reluctant to talk about the massive elephant in the room, in the form of Andrew Wilson's Growth Commission report

He said he was interviewed by national security officials on issues including his pro-independence views. After being suspended from his job, he left it, claiming he was unfairly targeted for his stance on leaving the UK and his support for the “social democratic values” of the SNP.

READ MORE: SNP Growth Commission report: Five key points

In her judgment, Judge Eccles rather neatly summed up exactly how Mr McEleny felt about Scottish independence.

“The claimant was clear in his evidence that he does not believe in Scottish independence because it will necessarily lead to improved economic and social conditions for people living in Scotland”, she said. “It is a fundamental belief in the right of Scotland to national sovereignty.”

So there you have it. Mr McEleny’s belief in breaking up the UK runs through him like letters through a stick of rock. His desire for indep­endence is so strong that it trumps pro-indy arguments based on the notion that securing a Yes vote is the best way to improve Scotland economically and socially.

Given that independence – come what may and damn the consequences – appears to be an existential part of the councillor’s being, it was perhaps somewhat surprising to see his most recent contribution to internal SNP politics.

Earlier this week Mr McEleny took to Twitter to reveal that the party’s latest independence blueprint will not be debated at its October conference. He said it was “absolutely astonishing” that the list of 32 motions for debate in Glasgow did not include any of Andrew Wilson’s much-vaunted Growth Commission or his proposal to stick with the pound for around a decade after independence.

Even the man for whom independence is a “philosophical belief” is objecting to the party’s failure to take a long and hard look at the harsh economic reality at independence. A similar row erupted before the SNP’s most recent conference in June, which happened to take place shortly after Mr Wilson published his 354-page magnum opus.

Despite the fact that the SNP document was the hot topic of the moment, there was no formal debate on its proposals, which are absolutely fundamental to the party’s next drive for independence. Instead, discussion of the document was relegated to a fringe meeting. That meeting offered some explanation as to why it might suit the SNP not to pore over the document in public. It was easily the stormiest session of the conference as the former SNP MP and economist George Kerevan criticised its contents.

READ MORE: SNP Growth Commission strengthens case for union, claims pro-UK think tank

The future plotted by the commission would, said Mr Kerevan, leave Scotland “at the mercy” of the banks, because its plans to keep the pound without Bank of England protection for a decade would hinder the ability to grow the Scottish economy. This, he argued, would put the poor at risk.

The difficulty for the SNP is that Mr Kerevan’s views are shared by many who, like him, can be found on the left of the party. Mr Wilson won praise for constructing a more realistic case for independence than that made in Alex Salmond’s white paper published ahead of the 2014 referendum.

But realism can have its drawbacks. Mr Wilson’s approach to cutting Scotland’s £13.3 billion deficit has seen the highly respected Institute for Fiscal Studies warn that Scotland would see a “continuation of austerity”.

One can understand why the SNP leadership might be reluctant to air these points and internal divisions at their autumn shindig. Rather, the Growth Commission is to be discussed internally at a series of SNP National Assemblies. The outcome of these discussions are then scheduled to be brought before party conference in spring next year or the National Council this coming December. In the meantime, it feels strange to be heading to another SNP conference where the biggest elephant in the room will be Mr Wilson’s indy blueprint.

Or as the Inverclyde councillor who is rapidly becoming the SNP’s best-known controversialist put it: “How can we not be debating the biggest contribution to the independence case since 2014?”

That may not amount to a “philosophical belief” for Councillor McEleny, but it is still a pretty good point.