Leaving Sturgeon’s Gold Standard

SNP Socialists co-convenor Graham Campbell reviews the SNP’s new strategy and its significance for the wider independence movement.

There was a very low level of expectation or excitement in advance of June 24th’s SNP Convention in Dundee. In lieu of the special conference that was postponed after Nicola Sturgeon’s sudden resignation in March, a thousand SNP delegates convened at Caird Hall, expecting some blue-sky thinking and no specific proposals. 

Instead, a day of open discussion began with a non-party panel of Yes movement speakers: journalist and campaigner Lesley Riddoch of ‘Time for Scotland’, National columnist Paul Kavanagh (‘the Wee Ginger Dug’), and Graeme McIntyre-Kemp of grassroots independence movement ‘Believe in Scotland’. In a conversation chaired by defeated leadership candidate and former Finance Secretary Kate Forbes, they agreed that the SNP must embrace the wider independence movement but also act to persuade more voters of the merits of independence. Contributors from both the panel and the convention floor were in accord that a referendum is off the table for the foreseeable future, given that the Tories and Labour are united in refusing the Section 30 order required to hold one, mainly because they know that they would likely lose the vote. 

People would be persuaded through encountering the reasons why Scotland could be a fairer, more successful, prosperous, green-energy society with a ‘wellbeing economy’ at its heart. According to Believe in Scotland research, when that progressive potential of independence is stressed – based on public ownership, fair taxation and fair work (including expanded trade union rights) – independence support rises to 56% from 48%. As their research has proven, support for independence and support for the SNP are not the same thing. Despite disastrous recent circumstances for the SNP, and its declining support (they are still in the lead – just), support for independence remains firm in the polls at or around 50%.

Unionist commentators gleefully proclaim that the SNP is in a “Death Spiral”, but the Express’s idea that “Sturgeon’s Independence Dream Now Dead in the Water” is obviously wishful thinking. It’s not just Nicola’s or Humza’s dream. Millions of Scots want the powers of independence as the means of creating a fairer, greener, more equal Scotland. What is dead in the water is Nicola’s preferred strategy for getting independence through the ‘gold standard’ of a referendum granted by Westminster. That dream is now recognised by all in the SNP as being gone.

The convention followed a very damaging period for the SNP: a divisive leadership contest which the left and centre won narrowly; the arrest and release without charge of the ex-First Minister, the former Chief Executive, and the Party Treasurer; and the accompanying falling poll ratings. You can forgive members for expecting a doom and gloom atmosphere. However, Humza Yousaf surprised the Convention with his announcement of the bold strategy of a de facto referendum at next year’s Westminster general election. ‘If you vote SNP’, he said, ‘you will be voting for Scotland to become an independent nation’. He made nods to the left in his speech, reflecting the coalition of support that he built inside the party to win the leadership:

‘I believe we can break the logjam with Westminster by mobilising the power of the people at the general election. … Westminster is not as good as it gets. We can do better than the failed Westminster economic model that is causing such misery.’

Other contributions came from delegates as well as frontline politicians. Tommy Sheppard cautioned: “Within days of a new UK Government, we must demand emergency powers for the Scottish Parliament to intervene in the economy with a supplementary pension, supplementary benefits, [and the ability to] raise the minimum wage and allow a Scottish visa while we’re waiting”. Less rousing was Ash Regan’s nonsensical proposal for a “voter empowerment mechanism” (I thought we call those elections and referendums). I suspect that even she does not know what that plan means, or how it brings independence any closer. Humza Yousaf was far more credible when he laid out the reasons we need independence: 

‘You get the powers to build an economy that puts the health and the happiness of its citizens at its heart, not an economy based on failed trickle-down economics taking us all on a downward spiral. You get the powers to tackle the cost of living crisis, not being forced to suffer the biggest fall in living standards since records began. You get the powers to build a welfare system that protects you, not one that punishes you. You get to be inside the EU and the world’s biggest single market, not being dragged out of Europe against your will. You get an energy policy that works for Scotland’s people – and works for the planet, not an energy market designed to work for Westminster and corporate shareholders.’

We all want to hear much more about what an SNP government – and an SNP government in an independent Scotland – will do to avert the cost of living crisis. But SNP delegates left Dundee with a sense of unity and with a commitment to convince more people of the substance of independence and to move on from the process issues which bore activists, never mind voters.

Obviously, independence is not the property of any one party. But despite all the turmoil, the SNP is still the main electoral and social force that exists to achieve that goal. To gain and hold a popular majority, the Yes movement needs to be a left-led, left-leaning coalition fighting for what we are for rather than running a narrow campaign focused on the things we are against.

We also need a strategy for mobilising independence supporters within the social movements of Scotland: green, red, yellow, pink, rainbow and black. Our movement for independence is a movement for revolutionary democratic renewal and transformational change that tackles poverty, the climate crisis, and the domination of the economy by multinationals and bankers. The promise of independence is a vision that socialists can and should consider, contest, and continue to shape.