‘Hard Brexit’ – a platform for a new Scottish independence referendum?

Unlike Tories and Labour, neither the SNP’s rapidly rising membership nor the recent upheavals of Brexit and a change in Prime Minister have unsettled the party machine. In stark contrast to the public airing of sectarian party divisions this conference season, the conference saw little public division. Instead the tensions within the party membership are under the surface. Long-time party members could be heard commenting on the increasingly commercial focus of the conference. The proliferation in suited party staffers and UK-wide lobbyists was frequently commented upon. A number of constituency delegates suggested that the election of Angus Robertson as the SNP’s deputy leader personifies the growing dominance of the “establishment” wing of the party.

With little in the way of direct intra-party wrangling, the big-ticket items of Brexit and the party’s renewed push for Scottish independence dominated the agenda. Nicola Sturgeon’s announcement that a consultation on a new referendum bill will be published this week had been expected since its inclusion in the party’s Holyrood manifesto. But the party has been deliberately unclear about how, or indeed, when, it will seek a new referendum.

The Brexit vote frames the narrative around the SNP’s renewed push for independence, in the wake of Scotland’s decisive vote for Remain by a margin of 62% to 38%. The looming issue of a hard Brexit served as a rallying call for the majority of members. “Remain means Remain” was a frequent response to Theresa May’s recent insistence that “Brexit means Brexit.”

The SNP leadership are understandably cautious about overplaying their hand, walking the tightrope between keeping onside those sections of the party membership keen to see a new independence referendum as soon as possible, and those who believe a second referendum should remain firmly off the table until a comfortable victory is guaranteed. There is tension between ‘gradualist’ and ‘fundamentalist’ tendencies within the SNP; between those who believe that independence is best pursued through incremental institutional reform and the measured negotiation of further devolution from Westminster towards a state where ‘actual’ independence becomes an easy practical and cultural transition, and those who believe that securing independence necessarily demands more a confrontational, abrupt break with the constitutional status quo.

In her closing speech to Conference, Nicola Sturgeon adeptly negotiated these two tendencies. Reaffirming the SNP’s self-positioning as Scotland’s ‘national party’ – as the ‘natural voice’ of its preferred brand of centre-left ‘civic nationalism’ – she spoke in direct opposition to what she referred to as the ‘little England’ politics presented by Theresa May. She also set out the SNP’s justification for a renewed push for independence. Faced with the prospect of a looming ‘hard Brexit’, in which Scotland could find itself removed from both the single market and common travel area, she argued that any future Scottish independence referendum could only be the fault of decisions made by the UK Government.

It is difficult to say when the SNP will seek to pursue a second referendum. Regardless of the apparent strength of their position, the party leadership are acutely aware that the success of a second referendum will rely on the close reading of both the terms on which the UK government seeks to negotiate our exit from the EU, and the peculiarities of Scotland’s changing political mood. It has been mooted that a second referendum might be seen as early as 2017.There is a fear that, if the SNP wait too long, then an unavoidable fall in the party’s popularity will detract from any public interest in Scottish independence.

As seen in the quiet confidence found at the party’s largest ever conference gathering, the SNP’s continued dominance of Scottish politics seems assured, for the time being, at least.

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