The UK’s party conference season is over, but Scotland’s is just beginning. Holyrood is entering recess and the SNP’s 83rd Annual Conference begins on Sunday. What are the key issues up for discussion and can we expect any surprises this year?
The situation in Catalonia has been one of the most prominent news items in recent weeks, with images of police violence following the contested referendum circulating widely on social media. SNP activists and supporters of Scottish independence have always expressed feelings of solidarity and political kinship with Catalan separatists, which has only intensified in the context of recent events. SNP politicians, including Joanna Cherry, Douglas Chapman, George Kerevan, Sandra White and former presiding officer, Tricia Marwick, have been visiting in person to observe events. The Scottish Government itself also issued a formal statement in light of the violence. It seems certain that the situation will be discussed at the SNP’s conference, likely through a topical resolution, particularly given the Catalan government has indicated its intention to declare independence in the coming days.
The situation in Catalonia has the potential to lead to some hard discussions in the party over the EU. While SNP activists are largely pro-European, and the party itself is intent on establishing the democratic and practical case for independence on the basis of EU membership, there have always been sceptical voices among in the crowd. The European Commission’s relatively muted response to the police violence in Catalonia, and its strong affirmation of the Spanish constitution, was met with widespread disappointment among party members and is likely to receive significant criticism on the conference floor. This is unlikely to lead to a shift in policy, but Scottish ministers will undoubtedly be watching the Commission’s approach to the Catalan situation closely over the coming weeks.
Immigration & Agriculture
Numerous resolutions on Brexit and EU-related issues have been tabled, including on regulatory safeguards, agriculture and immigration. Discussions around Scotland’s relationship with Europe will be extensive. The resolution on a devolved immigration system is particularly interesting, as NFU Scotland’s Policy Director, Jonnie Hall, has already voiced his concerns with these proposals due to the possibility of internal border controls. Context is important here. The agricultural sector receives a tremendous amount of money in subsidies from Europe, which will become the responsibility of the UK following Brexit, and Scottish growers are heavily reliant on European labour to pick and process their products. Moreover, the Scottish and UK governments are engaged in an ongoing constitutional battle over where powers over agriculture and fisheries will sit in the future. The issue has become one of the key battlegrounds in the post-Brexit constitutional policy landscape. The NFU and other industry bodies are a significant force in the debate, and their support will lend weight to any argument put forward by the opposing parties.
While the NFU has expressed doubts over proposals for a devolved immigration system, it has also consistently argued in favour of Scottish-specific approach to agricultural policy. Jonnie Hall stated earlier this year that “a one-size-fits-all UK policy would not work and would not be in Scotland’s interests”. Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy & Connectivity, Fergus Ewing, will be involved in an NFU fringe event on the topic during conference, where these issues will be explored in more depth.
Earlier this year, Holyrood controversially voted in favour of legislation to relax an outright ban on tail docking. This allowed the practice to resume for specific breeds of dogs. It was regarded by some as an own-goal by the Scottish Government, an unnecessary and unpopular capitulation to special interest groups, although Ministers have maintained that the decision reflected a “proportional” approach. At the time, opponents of tail-docking poured scorn on the evidence used to justify the practice and a number of SNP MSPs abstained when it came to the final vote. Furthermore, Christine Grahame voted against the measure altogether and is now supporting a campaign to overturn it.
The campaign is being led by former SNP leadership candidate Chris McEleny, who is seeking to lodge a topical resolution at conference to give members a vote on the issue. The resolution will make it clear that the party does not support tail docking and will call on the Scottish Government to review its decision to relax the ban. However, there have been suggestions that, as there was an opportunity to submit an ordinary resolution following the parliamentary vote, the issue is not eligible for debate as a topical resolution. Regardless of whether it is formally debated, it seems likely that campaigning will continue on the issue due to its emotive nature and high-profile backers.
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