This Sunday SNP delegates will gather in Aberdeen to decide our strategy for the next Westminster election. We meet after a disastrous result at the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election, and I expect there will be some lively conversations!
Social media has been awash with speculation about why the SNP lost so badly, but I don’t think there can be any certainty about that at this stage. Some are projecting their own political bugbears onto the result, particularly those who oppose the Bute House Agreement. However, I think it likely that there were a mix of factors at play, and the party will need to do a bit of work before fully understanding them.
The result has strengthened the views of those members who want to row back on the proposal tabled by the party leadership to use the next Westminster election as a vote on independence. It’s perfectly legitimate for members to want to adjust strategy, and their arguments will be given a respectful hearing. We all want independence, even if we have different views about how to achieve it. I am minded to support the proposal and I explain why below. But I will listen with an open mind to all the arguments made at Conference, as I trust all delegates will.
So, why do I support the proposal? I start from the premise that our opponents believe they can stop us making headway on independence by refusing to offer any movement on a second referendum. They calculate that voters will give up on independence if they see no way to achieve it. This, they believe, will cause the SNP to implode and everything to go back to the way it was before we made our breakthrough.
To be fair, it’s not a bad plan in the short term, though it is doomed to failure in the longer term. But we must decide what to do in the here and now, and I believe we must create movement on a second vote ourselves. Allowing independence to become becalmed would be an error in my view. This does not make me a fundamentalist, as some suggest. I am very much in the gradualist camp. Gradualism may mean moving forward slowly, but it does mean moving forward.
I understand calls to focus our efforts on building majority support for independence by delivering improved devolved services and campaigning for more powers. That was the SNP’s game plan for a long time, and it was very successful. Our government will always champion Scotland’s interests and do everything possible within the powers available to it. But we must also recognise that the cost-of-living crisis means that the space available to government has become much narrower and the opportunities more limited. The political context has also changed, post-Brexit.
Currently, devolved institutions are experiencing unprecedented financial pressures due to the disastrous state of the UK economy. The threat to some services, particularly in local government, is existential. This is happening at the same time as the cost-of-living crisis is driving up demand for public services and the climate emergency is beginning to bite. Some hope an incoming UK Labour government will offer some respite, but Starmer is taking a highly risk averse approach to public finances. None of this means that the Scottish Government cannot continue to innovate and deliver popular policies, but there are real difficulties to be overcome.
On top of these debilitating financial constraints, we are also seeing devolved powers being circumscribed and devolved policies undermined by an expansionist UK government. In post-Brexit Britain, UK ministers are asserting their power over Scotland much more aggressively than before, and I don’t believe this will change with a new government. Remember that Starmer rejected calls from his own party and the TUC to devolve employment laws. He backed the UK Government’s first use of a Section 35 Order to block devolved legislation supported by his own MSPs. And this week Ian Murray MP announced that a Labour government would expand the Tory practice of delivering funding to Scotland through a beefed-up Scottish Office, bypassing the Scottish Government.
This is not the behaviour of a political leadership that is open to a conversation about new powers for the Scottish Parliament. Any such conversation would have to be forced. Devolution can only be a vehicle to grow Scottish autonomy for as long as UK governments allow it to be. I believe today’s UK leaders, Tory and Labour, increasingly see devolution, in a Scottish context, as a barrier to post-Brexit UK unity. When they talk about devolution they aren’t talking about the Scottish or Welsh model. This doesn’t mean that they want to end Scottish devolution. But they certainly don’t want to expand it, and they want to be able to cut through it whenever it suits them.
So, given these changed circumstances, what must we do? In the immediate term, of course we must concentrate on the cost-of-living crisis, which affects every person, business, and institution in Scotland. It is, as the First Minister has said, a cost of Westminster crisis. The factors driving it are all in Westminster’s hands rather than in the hands of the Scottish Parliament, though not everyone understands that. We must make clear how much our government does to mitigate the worst impacts, and how hard our MPs at Westminster fight for the Scottish people, but we must also drive home that the longer-term answers lie with independence.
Only independence can deliver the outcomes that most Scottish people want to see in a sustainable way. I would therefore like to see an independence prospectus produced early doors. It should set out how independence can help us to address and improve all the issues that matter to people, and it should form the basis of our Westminster campaign. From growing the population and the economy, to securing a just transition to a net zero society, to eradicating poverty, to the chance to rejoin the EU, we must set out all the ways in which independence can transform our country.
That should be the choice we offer to voters – the real fresh start that comes with independence rather than managed decline with the UK. To give that vote meaning there must be actions attached to it. I sympathise with the argument that we should not get too tied up on process. But we must agree a way forward and give people the opportunity to vote for it. That’s how we gain a mandate for our actions.
Of course, I understand concerns that voters might choose not to prioritise independence at the Westminster election. That is a possibility. Some point to polling showing that most 2019 SNP voters do not currently prioritise independence. I don’t question that. It will be our job to persuade them to. If we don’t, then independence will become a longer-term prospect. But that would also be the outcome if we chose not to put independence to the vote. I want to put it to the vote.
It is important to me that we deliver on the pledge that we made in 2021 to put Scotland’s future in Scotland’s hands. I don’t think we should allow events to supersede the commitment that we made to give Scots a vote on independence. For me, it’s a matter of trust, so I think following through on that is the right thing to do. The alternative to offering that vote at the Westminster election is to offer it at the next Holyrood election, and I think that would be far more challenging. But let’s hear what delegates have to say, and I will support whatever Conference decides.