Nicola Sturgeon this morning launched the SNP manifesto, Stronger for Scotland, at an event in Perth. The choice of location was significant – Perth and North Perthshire, held by one of the SNP’s longest serving MPs Pete Wishart, is one of the party’s most vulnerable seats at this election and this was the First Minister’s third visit there of the campaign. The context of this election for the SNP is that they are in a more defensive mode than they have been accustomed to in recent years and know that it will be no easy task to hold on to the many, many Westminster seats they gained two years ago.
There are three principles at the heart of the manifesto they have published today: ending austerity and investing in public services; strengthening Scotland’s hand in the Brexit negotiations; and ensuring Scotland’s right to determine its own future. It is the latter of these, and specifically how it relates to the question of a second independence referendum, that inevitably generates the most interest amongst political commentators.
Nicola Sturgeon writes in her foreword to the manifesto that, while this election will not decide whether or not Scotland should become an independent country, a vote for the SNP “will reinforce the right of the Scottish Parliament to decide when a referendum should happen”. The manifesto reiterates the SNP’s argument that at “the end of the Brexit process, when the final terms of the deal are known”, Scotland should have the right to make a choice about its future. What is significant however is that the timetable previously laid out by Sturgeon – for indyref2 to take place between Autumn 2018 and Spring 2019, before the point of the UK’s departure – is not mentioned here. This would appear to indicate a pragmatic recognition that the UK government is unlikely to play ball in granting a referendum on that timetable.
There is some other significant language around the question of a second referendum. The manifesto is clear that securing a “majority of seats” in Scotland will “reinforce” the mandate for another plebiscite. Setting a majority of seats as the benchmark means that winning anything over 30 constituencies can be presented by the SNP as strengthening their democratic mandate to pursue a referendum. If current polling is borne out, they are likely to comfortably clear this threshold. What they are less likely to do is secure an overall majority of votes, and their opponents will no doubt try to make this the key measure of success or failure.
If the SNP wins the election in Scotland (presumably using the same seats-based criteria), the manifesto also states that they will “demand a place for Scotland at the Brexit negotiating table” with a view to protecting Scotland’s position within the Single Market. Furthermore, they will press the UK Government to seek the consent of the Scottish Parliament to the terms of the Brexit Bill. Realistically, the UK Government is unlikely to heed either of these demands. However their inclusion in the manifesto will enable the Scottish Government to argue that Scotland is being side-lined in the Brexit process, against the democratic wishes of the people of Scotland.
While independence and Brexit are the two issues that will generate the greatest level of interest, it would be unfair to say there is nothing in this manifesto beyond these. There are commitments to support the re-introduction of a 50p tax rate across the UK, an alternative fiscal plan to free up £120bn for investment in public services, significant constitutional reform proposals including calls for new powers for Holyrood over immigration and to conclude international agreements, as well as much else besides.
However, while there is plenty in here which sets out the future policy positions of the SNP, it is also a document which at times reads like a rebuttal of charges of inaction made against both the Scottish Government and the SNP Group at Westminster. There is a list of achievements of Nicola Sturgeon’s government and a series of ‘case studies’ by various SNP MPs highlighting issues on which they have taken a lead at Westminster, from the WASPI campaign to standing up for the oil and gas industry.There is even a page featuring screengrabs of various journalists tweeting praise of the SNP Westminster leader Angus Robertson as the leader of the “real opposition” in the Commons.
These further contribute to the sense of a party on the defensive, and suggest they may be feeling bruised by the attacks of political opponents (and some audience members at TV debates) that the SNP’s perceived “obsession” with independence may be taking their focus away from the bread and butter issues of concern to voters.
This manifesto seems like an effort to counter that narrative, while at the same time positioning the SNP for the major battles ahead on Brexit and pursuing indyref2. However, it begs the question: are these goals compatible? While her party are likely to win the election in Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon may find that there are difficult days ahead as she tries to reconcile these objectives.