SNP prepares to heal referendum divisions

SCOTTISH INDEPENDENCE: Senior figures within the SNP are preparing strategies to heal divisions caused by the increasingly bitter independence debate and developing plans to unify the country whatever the outcome of the referendum vote.

Alex Salmond walks with singer Nina Nesbitt near the finish line of the Scotland Run, a 10K road race through New York's Central Park. Picture: Getty

Scotland on Sunday can reveal that senior Nationalists are looking beyond the 18 September referendum to ensure that the split being played out in ugly political spats and online abuse does not result in a permanently fractured society.

On the eve of the party’s final conference before the most important date in the SNP’s history, much thought is being devoted to how the nation should move beyond 18 September, looking at the implications of a No vote as well as a Yes vote.

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In public, SNP politicians and activists, who head to Aberdeen for their conference this week, refuse to contemplate anything other than a Yes victory in September.

However, behind the scenes there are strong signals that the SNP is minded to work with other parties in the event of a No vote, and is also making plans to heal wounds if Scotland votes Yes.

With the pro-UK parties developing their proposals for a stronger Holyrood, SNP strategists have signalled that they are prepared to work with their opponents to coalesce around a more powerful devolution settlement if independence is rejected.

Working with Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives to make Holyrood more effective and accountable would mark a change of tack from the approach adopted by Alex Salmond’s party in the 1980s and 1990s, before the creation of the Scottish Parliament.

Back then, the SNP refused to sign up to the Claim of Right drawn up by the Scottish Constitutional Convention, which paved the way to devolution.

The SNP did not participate with Labour and the Liberals on the grounds that the convention did not consider independence.

Only after the 1997 general election did the SNP fall in behind the campaign for a Yes-Yes vote for a Scottish Parliament with tax-raising powers.

Last night, a senior SNP source indicated that the party would set aside the disappointment of defeat in the referendum to work with the pro-Union parties to achieve greater devolution, should another constitutional convention be established.

“In every single point in Scotland’s political history, the SNP has always acted in a way that maximises the Scottish interest,” the source said. We played a full role in the Yes vote of 1997. We didn’t stand back because independence wasn’t on the ballot paper.

“The SNP will always argue the best possible deal for Scotland in the circumstances.”

The source added: “But our view is that the best possible circumstances to get the best possible deal is a Yes vote.
I think we will get a Yes scenario.”

Asked directly about the prospect of a No vote, the source added: “We don’t need to get drawn on that scenario, but political history has shown at all points we have always acted to promote the Scottish interests… If there was a No vote, we would assess thatposition and the SNP has always taken the position of promoting the Scottish interest.”

Andrew Wilson, the former SNP front-bencher and still a well-connected party figure, was more forthcoming.

“People who are influential in the party have been thinking about that [what to do if there is a No vote],” said
Wilson, who now writes a weekly column for Scotland on Sunday.

“The party view is you have to behave like you are winning. But no matter the outcome, the country needs to step forward together. We can do that – no question.

“Whatever the outcome, we have to unify Scotland behind progress. The referendum remains a massive opportunity for people, but the SNP has to be leading in whatever happens after September.

“Whatever the outcome, the SNP has to be leading in securing the next stage.”

Wilson added: “Whatever we decide, the acrimony has to stop and making it work – whatever way we decide – has to start. That goes from everything from a currency union to a No vote with a substantial Yes minority.

“This debate is polarised at the moment. That’s fine. It is an honest disagreement. But it has to become unified after September, because people expect it. I think this is terribly important. I think this [referendum] process is enhancing for the country and its politics, but it is incumbent on the leaders of the parties at all levels to make sure that there is an adult conversation, the minute the decision is taken.

“Quite a lot of the debate just now is not particularly adult, I would say.”

Under discussion at the SNP conference will be the party’s plans to build consensus in the event of a Yes vote. According to the SNP source, efforts would be made to involve political opponents in the independence negotiations, which would be led by the Scottish Government.

“Within that we would be looking to bring together a team of all the talents. People from within all parties – former first ministers, former secretaries of state, political party leaders in Scotland – all of them would have a role to play,” the SNP source said.

The SNP is also looking for members of the public to participate through social media in the creation of a written constitution for an independent Scotland.

“In terms of the structures of the country, there is an opportunity in the aftermath of the referendum, which by nature is divisive in a literal sense of the word to very quickly thereafter have processes in place,” the SNP source said.

“We can make a virtue of that by taking these processes forward in a way that is inclusive and cross-party and
beyond political parties. I think that would be a very important thing.”

He added: “We have seen some of the coverage of the social media stuff. It is a very important message to indicate that the whole point of taking a decision and moving beyond it – is that that is when the country has a tremendous opportunity to come together.”

This week’s SNP conference follows a particularly fraught spell in the independence debate, which has seen tempers fray on both sides of the argument.

Yes supporters have taken umbrage at the George Osborne-led plan to deny an independent Scotland a currency union with the rest of the UK. Dismay greeted a recent STV “debate” that saw Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Labour leader Johann Lamont shout over each other during an encounter that has been nicknamed the “stairheid rammy”.

Last week, Scottish business leaders were subjected to ill-mannered questioning from SNP MSPs when they appeared before a Holyrood committee.

The economy committee convener, Tory MSP Murdo Fraser, admonished the MSPs for “badgering” CBI director Iain McMillan after he expressed reservations about independence.

More unpleasantness was in evidence when Bill Munro, the founder of Barrhead Travel, was subjected to a volley of 
online abuse after he wrote a memo to the majority of his 800-strong staff claiming that independence would be a “complete disaster” for Scotland.

Nationalists took to the internet to call for the company to be boycotted, compared Munro with Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe and suggested that the travel firm deserved to go out of business.

This week’s SNP conference, which is expected to attract more than 1,000 attendees, will promote the theme that Scotland “can”, “should” and “must” become an independent country.

The SNP leadership intends the event to act as a rallying point for independence which will aim to capitalise on tightening opinion polls.