The SNP has a “huge amount of work” to do in order to make a post-coronavirus case for independence, a senior Nationalist has warned ahead of party conference.
Jim Sillars, the party’s former deputy leader, said the SNP’s existing economic blueprint for breaking up the UK needed to be “shredded” because the pandemic meant it was now of no value.
Dismissing SNP suggestions that a second vote could be held next year as “stupid”, Mr Sillars argued that the economics of independence had to be reconsidered in light of Brexit and the pandemic.
This weekend, Nicola Sturgeon’s party will hold its 86th national conference in an unconventional form, which will be a far cry from the large-scale events which characterised the SNP gatherings in the aftermath of the 2014 referendum.
The Covid restrictions mean this year’s event is to be conducted virtually, which will be a source of frustration for those activists who relish the cut-and-thrust of debate and the social side of conference.
There is a huge amount of work to be done that we cannot do at the moment and certainly won’t be done in 2021 as people try to stitch the economy back together.”
Jim Sillars on the prospect of indyref2 next year
The nuclear option…
For the leadership, however, the confined format may be a blessing in disguise that will enable conference to be tightly-controlled and axe-grinding kept to a minimum.
That will not suit grassroots members growing impatient at what they see as a lack of direction when it comes to pushing for a second independence referendum as the SNP rides high in the polls.
Nor will it suit those who are concerned by the significant change in SNP nuclear weapons policy, which has seen the party’s traditional position in favour of unilateral disarmament ditched for a multi-lateral approach.
Former SNP leader Alex Salmond is among those who have objected to the change, which was outlined in the party’s submission to the UK Defence Review.
Mr Salmond is no longer an SNP member, therefore he will not feature in person at the virtual conference. Nevertheless his bitter dispute with Ms Sturgeon, which has split the party and is currently being played out at Holyrood, will hang over the event.
The divisions between Salmond and Sturgeon supporters, which have been publicised on the back of civil and criminal court cases as well as the Holyrood inquiry, will be the elephant in the virtual conference rooms.
“That will be the background murmuring at the conference without anyone being able to say anything about it upfront,” Mr Sillars said.
Party divided over poll plan
As ever, the other big issue will be independence. For months there has been frustration from the hardliners that the SNP leadership’s approach to the party’s raison d’etre has been too cautious.
Already, those who believe the party should explore a Plan B on how to achieve independence should the UK Government refuse to countenance a second referendum have been disappointed that their proposal will not be debated formally.
And within the party, there is disagreement over the fundamental issue of when a second poll should be held. The SNP’s Westminster leader, Ian Blackford, has said the party should plan for one as soon as next year.
The idea of having a referendum in 2021 is absolutely stupid and I think everybody with half a brain knows that to be the case. Playing to the gallery on the basis of a referendum next year does nobody in Scotland any good.”
Jim Sillars, former SNP deputy leader
But Mr Sillars dismissed Mr Blackford’s suggestion as ”stupid” and “playing to the gallery”, arguing that the SNP had to reset its economic case for breaking up the United Kingdom.
“We are going to emerge – hopefully emerge – from this devastating pandemic with its devastating effects upon the economy and there will have to be time to try to repair everything before we start to think about having a referendum,” Mr Sillars said.
“The idea of having a referendum in 2021 is absolutely stupid and I think everybody with half a brain knows that to be the case. Playing to the gallery on the basis of a referendum next year does nobody in Scotland any good.”
A series of opinion polls have put independence support above 50%, with one Ipsos Mori survey putting Yes backing as high as 58%.
But Mr Sillars said those findings were “surreal” and a product of the unusual times the country is going through.
“We are living in a surreal world at the moment,” Mr Sillars said. “These polls are taken when nobody knows what the true state of the economy is. And in a surreal world, you get surreal polls. And I think it is far, far better if we are bit more patient and a bit more sensible and stop playing to the gallery.”
As a priority, Mr Sillars suggested a fresh economic case for independence had to be made, arguing that the pandemic had made Andrew Wilson’s Growth Commission irrelevant.
This is a different world from 2014.”
Mr Wilson, an economist and former SNP MSP, had been commissioned by Ms Sturgeon to draw up an independence blueprint, which was published in 2018.
Mr Sillars said: “I still think Scotland would be far better if we were in charge of our own affairs in total sovereignty. But it is how you explain what you want to do to the electorate.
“This is a different world from 2014. And it is a different world from the one in 2019. So what is it we are going to say to the electorate that would convince them that they should vote yes? Andrew Wilson’s document should now be shredded as it is of no value whatsoever.
“It is a new economic situation. It will be a new social situation because we will have very heavy unemployment and we need analysis of what we face and how we overcome it in presenting a narrative to an electorate that would be successful in a referendum.
Mr Sillars added: “There is a huge amount of work to be done that we cannot do at the moment and certainly won’t be done in 2021 as people try to stitch the economy back together.”