Analysis: Nicola Sturgeon must look beyond loyalists

Wandering through the Aberdeen Exhibition and Conference Centre, it is impossible to avoid Nicola Sturgeon.

From SNP literature to life-sized posters publicising events, the First Minister’s image looms large at the party conference.

The personal branding appears to be an attempt to hitch the party even more closely to Sturgeon’s star as delegates discuss how to achieve their goal of independence.

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It would not be fair to characterise the SNP as a one-woman band, but much appears to be riding on the SNP leader’s shoulders. As Sturgeon’s newly elected Depute Leader Keith Brown put it, it is up to her to “steer” the SNP towards a decision on when (or if) to call a second independence referendum.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon after giving her keynote speech to delegates at the Scottish National Party's spring conference. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire

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Therefore it was interesting to hear Sturgeon try to manage expectations of an early poll. This conference also saw SNP members tuck into something more meaty than usual in the form of Andrew Wilson’s Growth Commission.

Although not formally debated on the conference floor, the SNP’s independence blueprint was being discussed avidly in the fringe meetings, hotels and watering holes of Aberdeen.

Already there has been a notable determination to bang the drum for more immigration as envisaged in Wilson’s document.

Barely a fringe meeting or speech did not mention the need for migrants to grow Scotland’s economy.

But although there is a political consensus on the importance of looking after an ageing population, other aspects of the Growth Commission have proved more problematic.

Sturgeon’s inability to recall transition costs to set up an independent Scotland during her “car-crash” Channel 4 interview was perhaps emblematic of this.

The First Minister’s colleagues were sanguine about her uncharacteristic failure to grasp the detail of her brief. But it is those very numbers that have provoked difficult internal discussion and argument.

Economist and former SNP MP George Kerevan articulated this publicly in a fringe meeting arranged by the Institute of Economic Affairs.

The Growth Commission was “too conservative”, argued Kerevan. It did not offer enough for the poor and Wilson’s currency plans would leave Scotland “at the mercy of the banks”.

Convincing those converted to the idea of independence of the merit of Wilson’s plans is one thing. It is quite another to convince the unconverted.

Ultimately Sturgeon has to reach beyond the conference hall if she is to make a success of the party’s latest independence plans and time her indyref2 run effectively. That is the challenge for the SNP’s poster girl.