EDINBURGH — In power for 13 years with no end in sight, the Scottish National Party is closer than ever to achieving the desired price of independence.
For the first time, opinion polls consistently show that the majority support the country’s separation from the rest of the UK. SNP leader and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is hugely popular, her handling of the coronavirus pandemic well regarded compared to Boris Johnson’s government.
Opinion polls also point to a clear victory for the SNP in next May’s election to Scotland‘s Holyrood parliament – which the party says would give them a mandate for a second independence referendum. The British government does not agree.
Despite the party’s strong position, it remains divided on strategy, personalities and, on occasion, politics.
Scottish Finance Secretary Kate Forbes – sometimes touted as a potential successor to Sturgeon – played down party divisions, telling POLITICO the party is not as disunited as it is depicted in the media and the debate is healthy.
“As someone involved in my locals and base, I don’t think the party is as disunited as it is often portrayed or presented. Whether it’s the timing of another referendum, the nature of an independent Scotland or devolved policy areas, the debate is good,’ she said.
In front of SNP Annual ConferenceBeginning Saturday, POLITICO navigates the divisions, differences of opinion and “debate” that have come to define the party arguably as strongly as its ultimate goal of independence.
Timing is everything
Discussions of the history of the SNP often focus on two traditions – that of the gradualists and that of the fundamentalists.
Dominating the party leadership for decades, the former is of the view that Scottish independence can only be won by incremental gains, first gaining the confidence of Scots and proving that the country can govern before pushing for a complete separation from British nationalists who subscribed to the latter view. argue that the party should emphasize independence and call for it loud and clear and without fear.
Ever the neatest of definitions, most SNP elected officials would say they don’t fall easily into either camp.
But nonetheless, in today’s party, that old dividing line is represented in internal battles over the timing of a future referendum – and what if Westminster says no.
Loud Westminster SNP leader Ian Blackford lit a match to some of the tensions earlier this month when he said the national sunday newspaper that a second referendum “must” take place in 2021.
POTENTIAL REFERENDUM POLL ON SCOTLAND’S INDEPENDENCE
For more survey data from across Europe, visit POLITICS Survey of surveys.
The appeal was strongly rebuffed by party figures, one of whom told the Times that “it will not be Ian Blackford who will decide the date. It will be the Prime Minister and the Cabinet.
Blackford is the most prominent SNP figure to have diverged from the position of the Holyrood leadership, which has been more cautious and evasive about the timing of any future post-election referendum due to the coronavirus pandemic. He represents a sect of new SNP fundamentalism that advocates a strong commitment to a referendum next year.
Sturgeon defined its own position on Thursdayneither ruling out the prospect of a referendum in 2021 nor endorsing the idea, but instead calling for a vote in the “first part of the next Scottish Parliament”, which is expected to last four years.
What if Westminster says no?
Boris Johnson has repeatedly said he will not endorse a second independence referendum. During his short premiership he has already formally rejected the idea and the No 10 has made it clear he does not consider a victory by any margin next May to be tenure.
SNP politicians are divided on how to respond.
Sturgeon has always said Scotland should agree to a referendum on the same terms as the 2014 vote, which was granted by a so-called Section 30 Ordinance, a reference to part of the 1998 Scottish Act which , when triggered, allows Holyrood to pass laws in areas that are normally defined by Westminster.
The argument is that the UK government’s position to reject another transfer of powers is unsustainable if the electoral success of the SNP continues. Finance Secretary Forbes supports this view, adding that the government’s opposition to a referendum only increases support for independence.
Forbes said: “Every time they say no, I strongly suggest they recruit more people to the independence cause.
“You don’t have to support independence to realize that the UK government continuing to say no is unsustainable. I hope the UK government will come and see it for themselves, as they are doing their own cause no favors at the moment.
Other SNP figures disagree. Some, including Edinburgh MP Joanna Cherry, have called for a legal test of the waters by holding a referendum even if Westminster does not transfer power for it.
Cherry told a lecture at a Welsh university on Friday that the Scottish government would have to come up with a “carefully crafted bill” for a second referendum in Holyrood should they win an independence majority in the election. Also QC, Cherry said it would then be up to the courts to determine whether a legal referendum could take place.
Some go even further. Angus MacNeil, an MP for the Western Isles, and Chris McEleny, a well-followed adviser within the independence movement, have called for a more radical “plan B”.
SCOTLAND REGIONAL ELECTION POLL
For more survey data from across Europe, visit POLITICS Survey of surveys.
Both men argued that if Westminster refuses to consider a second referendum, next May’s election should instead become a proxy – meaning an SNP majority victory would be a mandate to open immediate negotiations for an independent Scotland . They pretended a debate on “plan B” at the party conference was blocked by an SNP committee.
Sturgeon said either alternative path “would lack the necessary legal, political and diplomatic clout.”
The Specter by Alex Salmond
Former Prime Minister Alex Salmond retains an elephantine presence in the party, although he has held no elective office since losing his seat in 2017.
Faced with a Scottish government investigation into sexual misconduct in 2018, Salmond challenged the government’s internal investigation and sought a judicial review. The review found that the investigation against him – by the government he led – had been unlawful and tainted with bias.
After Salmond was also acquitted of all offenses in a criminal trial earlier this year, a Holyrood inquiry is currently looking into the Scottish Government’s mishandling of the original investigation.
The affair has damaged relations between Sturgeon and Salmond – once close allies and friends as Prime and Deputy Prime Minister – in a very public way.
Salmond still has many allies in the party. Some, like Cherry, have built a base of support and have at times publicly disagreed with current leaders over independence strategy and planning.
Others have much less tact. East Lothian MP Kenny MacAskill – a former justice secretary in the Scottish Government under Salmond – has been highly critical of Sturgeon and the party leadership on several occasions.
In September, MacAskill went as far as request a suspension SNP CEO Peter Murrell over leaked WhatsApp messages he sent during the Scottish Government’s investigation into Salmond.
In addition to his powerful role within internal party structures, Murrell is also married to Sturgeon. He is due to provide oral evidence at Holyrood’s Salmond Inquest next month.
What – and who – is next?
There have been a few minor splits in the SNP over the past year.
Two new pro-independence parties have registered with the electoral commission ahead of the May elections, with former SNP members and former politicians joining either the Independence Action Party or Scottish Independence Party.
Further physical splits are unlikely – even SNP critics of the current leadership acknowledge that a larger split could potentially damage the polling strength currently enjoyed by the yes side.
Instead, critics and supporters are beginning to consider the possibility of a leadership race.
Although Sturgeon served six years as prime minister and indicated she would serve at least another term if re-elected, an inquiry is currently looking into whether she breached the ministerial code during her government’s inquiry into Salmond .
She told the BBC on Thursday that she was “satisfied” with her conduct and the decisions she made, declining to say whether she would resign if the investigation found against her.
Sturgeon could also come under pressure if the strategy to force the concession of a Westminster referendum fails after the election.
MP Joanna Cherry, who raised her profile thanks to a Brexit court case last year, and who is believed to be considering a leadership bid at some point, is waiting in the wings for any potential contest. Earlier this year she lost an attempt to swap a Westminster seat for Holyrood when the party changed selection rules.
Cherry claims the rules were secretly changed in an attempt to “block” his candidacy, which directly rivaled Angus Robertson, an ally of Sturgeon and also seen as a potential successor.
Other potential candidates sometimes mentioned include Holyrood justice secretary Humza Yousaf, young leftist MP Mhairi Black and finance secretary Kate Forbes, although she told POLITICO in an interview that she did not want of the post.
The only certainty in any future leadership race is that it is unlikely to go as smoothly as it did in 2014 – when the keys to the office passed from Salmond to Sturgeon unchallenged.