The 2015 General Election at which the SNP won a near clean-sweep of Scottish seats at Westminster had major ramifications not only for the balance of power in the House of Commons – it also significantly altered the long-established routine of the autumn party conference season. For so long an afterthought in the minds of the UK political establishment, SNP conference has now clearly overtaken the Lib Dem gathering as the third in the triumvirate of major party conferences. For the second year running, a large delegation from the London-based political, media and business communities will be travelling north to listen to what Nicola Sturgeon and co have to say.
So, what can they expect?
It may be a statement of the obvious, but like all of this season’s party conferences, the after-effects of the Brexit vote will loom large. For Labour that primarily manifested itself in the leadership contest that ensued in the wake of the Leave vote and Jeremy Corbyn’s resulting re-election on an increased mandate. For the Tories it was about using the conference platform to provide further clarity on the timescale and the mechanism by which Brexit will be enacted. And for the SNP it will be about the extent to which Brexit puts the independence question back on the table for Scotland.
The key questions for the First Minister in Glasgow will be how she can balance the competing tensions of a grassroots base anxious for another crack at a referendum and polling evidence which suggests the Leave vote has not precipitated the type of increase in support for independence that was widely expected in its aftermath.
In the days and weeks that followed June 23rd, Sturgeon was seen as having played a blinder. She vowed to do whatever was necessary to protect Scotland’s relationship with the EU as well as going further and faster to offer reassurance to EU nationals that they remained welcome in Scotland. Like Sadiq Khan in London, Sturgeon was highly effective at speaking for the majority of those in her part of the country that had voted to Remain. Many assumed it was inevitable that, with the ‘material change in circumstances’ stipulated in the SNP manifesto having occurred, a second Scottish referendum would be a matter of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’.
Indeed, Sturgeon herself went on to say that ‘indyref2’ now looked “highly likely”. And – at some point down the line – she may well be proven right. The difficulty that the First Minister has is that, for a not inconsiderable band of her own supporters, Scotland’s second ‘date with destiny’ cannot come soon enough. Yet for the time being, the evidence is simply not there to suggest that the material change in circumstances has brought about a material change in the balance of public opinion: after an initial (smaller than expected) bounce in support for independence, polling has settled back into a pattern of around 52-53 per cent against independence.
For this reason, the SNP are likely to try to ensure that their conference is about more than the question of when a future second referendum may occur. Indeed, it has become a common refrain of SNP ministers to argue that it is in fact the party’s political opponents that are obsessed with the ‘constitutional question’. Focusing on issues from Scotland’s economic growth to education and infrastructure may be appealing in this regard.
But with a restless activist base and a media thirsty for answers on indyref2, Sturgeon may find that moving beyond the independence question is easier said than done.