The SNP enjoyed some creative license at their party conference. But can they capitalise on anti-Brexit feeling—without losing support?by Dominic Hinde / October 11, 2017 / Leave a comment
Peter McNally has the kind of political access most journalists at a party conference can only dream of. The freelance art photographer, who cut his teeth shooting music and fashion, came to prominence in 2014 as he travelled the country photographing the “Yes” campaign to leave the UK. When Nicola Sturgeon took over the SNP leadership he was brought in not only to produce press photos—many of which have become iconic images—but to provide an intimate record of what the party hoped would be a defining moment in it and Scotland’s history.
Skip forward three years and McNally is still shooting the UK’s second most powerful politician. He is one of a road crew who have trailed Nicola Sturgeon since 2014 as she relentlessly tours the country, reinforcing the image of the First Minister as both a stateswoman and someone who you could, literally, just bump into in the street. At the Scottish Exhibition Centre in Glasgow, he glides around snapping SNP ministers and members for the party’s insomniac social media team and his own private archive.
The front of the SNP’s conference programme, and the video screens around the hall, proclaim ‘Progress’ in huge letters, backed by a list of achievements ranging from the protection of free bus passes to the building of a second road bridge over the Firth of Forth.
The official line is that the last ten years have been a period of hard work and consolidation as the party have crafted the country in their own image. Some of the claims are more dubious than others, but the conference programme was printed just late enough to include last week’s headline-grabbing fracking ban on its list of merits.The SNP have, in effect, written a CV in which some of their work experience is creatively expressed for maximum effect.
Other things are conspicuous by their absence. The party also has a strong paternalistic instinct characterised by its need to centralise power to Holyrood and act in what it sees as the best interests of the country. Scotland’s interests range from free tuition and providing free baby boxes to new mothers to cutting aviation tax and overruling planning applications after intensive private lobbying—as happened with Judy Murray’s controversial private property and tennis development. None of these are mentioned in the conference material.
Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson has made hay claiming that she forced the SNP to think again on independence with her anti-Sturgeon campaign at the general election—but in reality, Sturgeon and her party are playing a careful waiting game that started before and may yet outlive Davidson. On the opening day of conference, the first item to be debated—once John Swinney had trotted out denouncements of the Westminster parties—was preserving Scotland’s EU safeguards.
“The real danger for the nationalists in the coming years may not be the Tories, Labour”
This is a serious question but one designed to make voters wonder whether the best security wouldn’t just be independence and a seat at the European Commission. That the motion passed re-affirmed a position on EU membership designed to expressly clash with the messages emerging from Westminster on the possibility of not just a hard Brexit, but an economically catastrophic no-deal scenario which Davidson is intimately tied to.
Yet the real danger for the nationalists in the coming years may not be the Tories, but a Scottish Labour party led by leadership hopeful Richard Leonard. With a Corbyn ally leading the party north of the border, the younger and more left-wing voters who flocked to vote Yes in 2014 could yet go back to Labour and trap the SNP in the centre—especially if Leonard can rid Labour of the smell of patronage and careerism that was its downfall in Scotland and which may yet sink his rival, the millionaire businessman Anas Sarwar.
The result is an SNP that must triangulate hard. There is internal pressure, too, to push for more interventionist and adventurous economic politics when the party is so powerful, especially as the pro-independence Scottish Greens hold the balance of power at Holyrood and are the key to passing budgets.
On conference floor, it’s not difficult to find party members who support a shift in policy. Tam McTurk is the convenor of the party’s swelling Leith branch and one of many with a background in socialist politics who think the SNP should not be afraid to go further left still.
“I’ve been a lefty all my life, no bones about it, always will be,” says McTurk. “I’m broadly in line with the party programme, I knew when I joined that that wasn’t necessarily what the party was about.”
“It’s a social democratic party, not a socialist party, but there’s a European tradition of social democracy which is very different from the British labour version of social democracy, and I think the SNP fits in fairly well into that.”
Conference is a big day out for the SNP membership and a chance to showboat their progressive credentials. Policies on land reform and removing subsidies for the Royal Family all draw cheers from the crowd as they are signed off one by one.
The progressives carry the room, but the right of the party exert their influence in different ways. A membership motion on reintroducing a ban on tail docking—lifted by the Conservatives and a whipped SNP this summer in Edinburgh as a concession to the hunting lobby—was not allowed to proceed to debate.
Similarly, amongst the applause of the resolution on banning fracking, energy minister Paul Wheelhouse offered some unprompted assurances to the oil industry based on a dubious explanation of ensuring Scotland’s energy security. He was watched from the sidelines by Economy Minister, Keith Brown, a man who has overseen the biggest programme of roadbuilding undertaken in Scotland since the 1960s whilst squeezing public transport schemes in infrastructure spending.
People queued for hours to get into the auditorium for the First Minister’s address, in which a range of new policy proposals were reeled off and Sturgeon described a Scotland that had blossomed under the SNP. Her final speech—flanked by her ministers and shadowed by her photographer as she read from the autocue—was an invitation to participate in an enticing nation of free childcare and public services and of investment social and economic in the country’s future.
In the SNP, policy and self image are two sides of the same coin, and Sturgeon has given all of her party and all of Scotland something to like. It has taken a few knocks in the past year, but the SNP is still very much in charge.
Fitter, happier, more productive, powered by green energy and built on good governance and gradual reform—governing for all of Scotland, as the party often describe their agenda, is about modernisation in moderation and mediation.
As they seek to guide Scotland through the loss of the EU it will likely remain their favourite rhetorical attribute. In a nation where even their opponents view Brexit as both democratically illegitimate and financially disastrous, the SNP believe that the chaos enveloping British politics will in time be captured in the archives as a necessary trial on the road to independence.