The referendum's the thing

Nicola Sturgeon seeks to manage the independence issue in her speech to SNP conference

Douglas McIlroy watches a First Minister in her political prime

So here we are at the conference of the third largest party in the UK. The SNP leader and Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, walked triumphantly on stage at her party’s biggest ever conference today with membership numbers swelling and momentum truly on the SNP's side. This is a party not dwelling on the fact it did not achieve its ultimate goal of independence just over a year ago. Quite the opposite, with Sturgeon’s opening remarks focused on the party’s unprecedented success at the general election and membership numbers rising to over 140,000.

However, with great success comes the cautionary tale of not letting power go to your head. It was with this in mind that the latter half of Sturgeon’s speech alluded to domestic policies and the job of governing. The address was also littered with pointers to what the party’s immediate focus is – securing a historic third term in Holyrood. Although independence will forever be the elephant in the room, this conference is all about the Scottish parliamentary elections in May 2016.

Sturgeon is happy to exploit her unique position of being a leader in Holyrood and, by proxy, a leader in Westminster. She can leverage the SNP’s newfound presence in the House of Commons to make Holyrood appear a beacon of progressive politics and wipe out remaining opposition north of the border. She is happy to use both Conservative austerity and Labour soap-opera to further promote the SNP. It is the latter that will have the most impact come May 2016.  Senior SNP figures sense that media enthusiasm for Labour disjointedness could start to have an effect in Scotland.

If Labour can help deliver success for the SNP in Holyrood, it is then Conservatives that can deliver the nationalist dream of separation. Sturgeon’s speech was trailed with media briefings downplaying the prospect of another independence referendum and the need to respect the decision that was made in 2014. But she had to address the matter in her speech, and address it she did. Sturgeon said to propose another referendum in the next parliament without strong evidence that a significant number of No voters had changed their minds would be wrong. But she added “strong and consistent evidence” that people had shifted their position would make it wrong to rule out a referendum.

The bottom line here is that Sturgeon is only going to call another referendum she knows she will win. But the SNP is confident that years of Conservative government will move public sentiment its way. The SNP is patient and happy to play the waiting game if necessary. However, England and the Conservatives may deliver sooner than they had hoped via the EU referendum. A SNP promise to respect democratic rights was quickly shattered with a warning that if Scotland voted to stay the bloc and England voted to leave, this could be the democratic signal for another independence referendum.

So we have a party juxtaposing its positions, but comfortable in that. The SNP is the party of influence in Westminster but one that has to walk the talk in governing Scotland. It is aware it has to respect the country’s preference for union but in meantime will use the EU referendum as a clandestine campaign for independence. All eyes appear to be the Scottish parliamentary elections, but don’t be fooled – there is one thing above that still drives this party.

Photograph: SNP



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