The First Minister said it herself – the I-word was very much the focus of this autumn’s SNP conference.
Specifically, the inclusion of Scotland in the European Union. The inclusion of EU nationals in Scotland. And the (perceived) lack of inclusion of Scotland from Westminster’s decision making.
The spectre of Brexit was omnipresent throughout the conference, whether looming large in key speeches and debates, right through to more unexpected shout-outs to EU nationals in resolutions on rural education and creating a good food nation. Whilst it was clear beforehand that Brexit would be given top billing, the extent to which it pervaded all parts of conference was conspicuous.
“You are welcome here; Scotland is your home” was never far from the lips of politicians, delegates and member observers alike. The message was largely aimed towards EU nationals, though the real jewel in the crown for the SNP here was the speech delivered by Greg Brain – an Australian national – on Friday afternoon. Mr Brain’s emotionally charged address left barely a dry eye in the house as he detailed his family’s struggles to stay in the UK – it was almost enough to move even this cold-hearted reporter.
Morality was front and centre in terms of providing assurances to EU nationals that the Scottish Government would fight for them, followed closely by the knock-on effects to sectors such as the health service and wider economy. Underlying it all though, was the SNP’s desire for the other I-word.
Opinion on this was split. Not, of course, on whether Scotland should be independent, but rather the when and how of getting there. Supporters argue that Brexit was a “material change in circumstance”, but opinion polls suggest this belief is not catching. The results of a BMG survey of the general public released midway through conference found 47% would vote to remain in the UK, whilst support for independence dipped to 39%.
The announcement of a referendum bill was not the First Minister firing a starting gun. Rather, this week (Wednesday, if Michael Russell’s slip at a fringe on Friday is to be trusted) we can expect a consultation on the draft version of the bill to protect the legality of any second referendum. The SNP’s desire for independence has not died down – but the higher echelons of the party are keen to make sure they will win if second chances are given.
This will be no easy task for them (and other Yes campaigners). The uncertainties highlighted the first time around continue to shroud the question of Scottish independence – and perhaps are even more magnified now. With the pound collapsing, what currency will Scotland use? With potential trade barriers on the way, how will the Scottish economy continue to grow? And most pressingly, will an independent Scotland be accepted as a member of the EU?
As was highlighted at a European Free Alliance fringe on Saturday lunchtime, “nobody is pre-negotiating”. Not EU governments with the UK and Scottish Government’s over Brexit; not the UK Government with the Scottish Government over a second independence referendum; and not the SNP with its stance that “remain means remain”.
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