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Is the SNP 'on the sidelines' of politics?

Peter Geoghegan Glasgow
October 7, 2017

When the Scottish National Party meets in Glasgow this weekend, one significant issue will be officially off the conference agenda — independence. Peter Geoghegan reports from Glasgow on the party's directional struggle.

The SNP party conference venue in Glasgow
Image: DW/P. Geoghegan

Earlier this year, the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh backed a bid to hold a new independence referendum. But since then the Scottish National Party (SNP) has suffered electoral setbacks, and polls suggest that the prospect of Brexit has failed to significantly increase support for Scotland leaving the UK.  

Independence, however, will be on the minds of many of the thousands of activists in attendance at the SNP's three-day-long conference that kicks off Sunday, October 8. There is also likely to be plenty of debate about the situation in Catalonia, a cause close to the heart of many Scottish nationalists.

The SNP has dominated Scottish politics for the past decade. Last year, the nationalists won an unprecedented third term in power in Scotland's devolved parliament in Edinburgh. But this weekend, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon will, for the first time in her career, arrive at the party conference on the back of political defeat.

Read more: When European politicians bet big - and lost 

SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon waving to supporters
Nicola Sturgeon needs to allay the concerns of many grassroots membersImage: picture alliance/AP Photo/A. Milligan

In June, the SNP lost 21 seats in the UK general election. Afterwards Sturgeon announced a "reset" of her plans for a referendum by spring 2019. That decision has left some of the SNP's more than 100,000 members wondering about the prospects for an independence vote that seemed so likely after Scots voted against Brexit strongly and voted to remain in the European Union.

Read more: UK must protect Scotch whisky post-Brexit, says Scottish official

SNP steers clear of independence issue

"The grassroots are confused. Nobody is offering any direction at the moment," says Angela Haggerty, editor of pro-independence news site CommonSpace. "It's almost bewildering that we've found ourselves in a situation where 45 percent of the population want Scottish independence and they're having to beg the SNP to talk about it," she told DW.

Although the SNP was on the losing side in Scotland's 2014 independence referendum, that defeat almost felt like a victory in the immediate aftermath. Tens of thousands joined the party within days. In 2015, the nationalists won all but three of the 59 Scottish seats in Westminster.

But the days when glitter cannons rained confetti down at SNP party conferences feel like the distant past now. Sturgeon's popularity has suffered badly, with many Scottish voters blaming the SNP leader for pushing for a second independence referendum.  

The SNP will be hoping that the weekend provides an opportunity for a reset. In September, the nationalists' program for government — which included an end to the public sector pay cap and plans to phase out new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2032 — was well received by most.

But the SNP has often struggled to gain traction in the biggest issue in British politics — the UK's exit from the European Union. Although some 62 percent of Scots voted to remain in the UK, Conservative leaders in London have consistently refused nationalists' demands to be involved in talks.

A Scottish independence supporter
The issue of independence has taken on a new dimension against the backdrop of events in CataloniaImage: DW/P. Geoghegan

SNP on the sidelines

As Brexit consumes British politics, the SNP is in danger of being marginalized, says political commentator Iain Macwhirter.

"An independence referendum off the table and Scotland sidelined over Brexit — the SNP seems to be very much on the sidelines, responding to events rather than making the political weather," he told DW.

The SNP's wholehearted support for the EU — the party has said that an independent Scotland would look to re-join the EU — could also come under pressure in the wake of recent events in Catalonia.

The first item on the conference agenda on Sunday is a resolution praising the European Union. But some nationalists are angry that the EU has insisted that the situation in Catalonia is "an internal matter for Spain."

Read more: Opinion: EU silence on Spain-Catalonia dispute won't help

But, says Angela Haggerty, Catalonia could become a problem for the SNP.

"The independence movement sees Catalonia as a fellow movement, a friend, while the SNP (at least officially) wants to be friends with the EU as well. If the SNP doesn't want to talk about independence right now, it may find itself talking more and more about Brexit and the EU, which will turn Catalonia into the elephant in the room."

Map showing separatist regions in Europe

The SNP has long been divided between fundamentalists, who believe the party should focus almost entirely on independence, and gradualists, who see accumulating powers for the Scottish parliament as the safest route to statehood. The latter still dominate within the party leadership, and despite recent setbacks the SNP is still polling at over 40 percent.

Patience is an SNP virtue

"There is no sense that there is much frustration with the leadership, but there is clearly some frustration that the party has not managed to consolidate that massive surge in electoral support and membership witnessed after the independence referendum," says James Mitchell, professor of politics at Edinburgh University. 

Much of the SNP's history was spent on the margins of political life. Founded back in 1934, the party often held its conferences in hotels in small Scottish towns even until recently. Having waited so long for independence, many in the party will be willing to trust in Sturgeon's ability to guide them to a second referendum, whenever that might be.

For the SNP, this weekend will be about regrouping and waiting, says Alex Massie, Scotland editor of the right-of-center Spectator magazine. 

"This remains a cautious, centrist, party. As always, the SNP is careful to offer a balance, the better to occupy the middle ground. A middle ground slightly to the left of that found in England but still the Scottish middle ground."