Glasgow’s SEC plays host to the 83rd Annual Conference of the Scottish National Party this weekend. From Sunday until Tuesday, delegates will arrive from all over the country to discuss SNP policy and the campaign for independence.
Nicola Sturgeon will address a packed hall full of eager independence supporters on Tuesday, hoping for a less troublesome speech than PM Theresa May had last week!
With water and cough sweets at the ready, and signage well and truly stuck in place, the SNP’s big names and local members kicked off a range of debates within the party on Sunday afternoon.
Attending our 5th SNP conference, its clear to see the usual enthusiasm and energy mixed with an air of excitement again. Seemingly unaffected, at least outwardly, by its loss of some big political scalps during the hastily-called General Election in June, the SNP’s slogan for the conference, plastered on banners, tv screens and on the conference guide itself, is “PROGRESS”.
But it made us think – progress for who? With this simple slogan, it seems the SNP are not speaking to those in the conference hall and certainly not the members eagerly campaigning in the evenings and weekends around the country (despite there being no scheduled election now until 2021). Those members know fine well that progress is being made and the argument for independence is still being debated in families and pubs around the country. But its the reputation of party and the SNP Government that this message is really about.
In fact, the SNP are speaking to those in Scotland, and elsewhere, who think there’s a loss of momentum and a feeling of running out of steam. And they intend to challenge that head on.
After 10 years in Government at Holyrood, the party could be described as being a victim of its own success. At a national level, there have been a number of huge social changes in Scotland over the past decade, including the monumental shift in societal attitudes towards minorities, especially LGBT lives, which are now protected by some of the most effective laws in Europe.
At a political level, who would have thought that 56 of the 59 Scottish seats would be taken by the SNP in a Westminster election, or that winning 35 of those seats again just 2 years later would be seen as losing the election, or even that after ten years of government the SNP are still polling 42% of the constituency vote at Holyrood, according to Survation recently.
But all that support cannot hide the fact that the party faces a number of fundamental questions right now – What do they do about the reported 1 in 3 SNP members who voted for Brexit? How do we manage expectations of a not-too-distant independence vote promised by Nicola Sturgeon, when the country isn’t convinced yet. And how do we deal with the issue of currency in the context of Scottish independence?
Yes, membership numbers are high – at over 100,000 members it has more supporters signed-up by all the other parties in Scotland put together. Yet if the SNP is to achieve its ultimate goal of independence within our lifetimes, they must take the majority of people with them. Aspirational hyperbole from the sidelines is all very good when you’re a minor party, but when you are the party of Government, actions affect the lives of the people you serve every day and undoubtedly impact the people’s views of your party, however much they agree with your principles.
When families cant get a promised public nursery place in Edinburgh, they doubt whether the SNP can deliver on the big stuff. When our young people continue to face a crisis in mental health provision after a decade in power, they doubt whether the SNP can deliver. When the sick and elderly need to queue outside our doctor surgeries from early morning just to get an appointment, they doubt whether the SNP can deliver for them.
So this ‘PROGRESS’ slogan is about projecting confidence and reassurance – offering the wider public the message that, despite the headlines and the cracks which often appear with a decade in power, the leading party in Scotland is still making progress, but progress towards what? Party leader, Nicola Sturgeon, is rightly proud of free prescriptions, free higher education, record NHS funding and crime at a 43-year low. These are big achievements which any country should be proud of.
But there’s also a recognition that at this important stage, with Brexit snuffing out any other time for meaningful legislation at Westminster, the SNP could have taken that now infamous mantle of ‘strong and stable leadership’ and really meant it, had it not been poisoned by Tory spin doctors. Conference is that opportunity to listen to the membership and to bring those innovative and imaginative policy ideas to the membership.
You wouldn’t be surprised to hear that topical resolutions such as protections for EU citizens in Scotland and lifting the public sector pay cap would be part of the conference agenda, but sprinkled amongst these are gems of fresh policy fodder for members to chew over.
For example, the resolution which was passed overwhelmingly on the first day on raising the minimum age of military recruitment to 18. The influential Rhiannon Spear, of SNP Youth, spoke passionately today in support of the motion, using the democratic processes within the party to reflect and amend a policy position with input from a cross-section of members, before bringing the issue to conference. The UK is the only member of NATO or permanent member of the UN Security Council to allow those under 18 to enrol.
Similarly the resolution which seeks to outlaw the exploitation of women for sex in exchange for “free” rent, an issue which has increasing prominence in Scotland in recent years, and due to be debated later in the conference, is something new for the SNP. Or the debate on automatic voter registration and votes at weekends, something which a number of countries around the world have adopted, but is still missing from the home of civilised democracy here in the UK. Although not hugely radical, they are topics which get people talking and thinking about something other than Brexit for five minutes!
It will be issues like these and others which catch the imagination of Scots who are NOT in the party, but which have a positive impact on their lives which will really extend the SNP’s continued political success in Scotland, and ultimately could give them enough support for their goal of seeing an independent Scotland.