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Five Things We Learned During SNP Conference
The annual gathering shows a party determined to try to turn the weaknesses of their case into strengths.
As nationalists gathered virtually for the 87th time to reassure each other that the cause of every problem is still our connection to England, there was a feeling of a party that is going through the motions. There were a few themes and developments that were of interest, so here are five things worth reflecting on from the SNP conference.
1. They’ve chosen conspiracy theories over credible plans.
Throughout the event, speakers offered euphemistic language about the “challenges” of leaving the UK and promised “open and honest” answers on the costs of separating from the UK. When it came down to it though, the leading spokespeople used their speeches to give us lazy conspiracy theories rather than credible plans.
In particular, the argument in this clip from Nicola Sturgeon seems more suited to someone who believes that Bill Gates is controlling their mind through mobile phone masts than a serious First Minister.
On the one hand, this is worthy of ridicule. Those perfidious unionists, she tells us, are making it better for us to remain in the UK and they’re doing it on purpose! However, behind the silly language is a serious attempt to flip the entire frame of the independence debate. It is an effort to turn the obvious economic advantages of interdependence into grievances for the independence cause.
So yes, they will acknowledge, a hard border with England would be costly, but only because UK Governments have allowed Scotland to be dependent on trade with the rest of the UK. OK, they’ll admit, losing the money redistributed around the UK would mean hard choices, but only because UK Governments have overseen economic growth in the South East rather than Scotland. Fine, they’ll concede, pensions would be less affordable on our own, but only because UK Governments have overseen a situation where more and younger migrants haven’t chosen to make Scotland their home.
Shifting the blame for the pain of leaving the UK onto those who oppose leaving the UK may seem brazen, ludicrous even, but they will use this formula over and over again until, without anyone noticing, it becomes the dominant frame of the debate.
They need to do this because, on the big issues - the cost to the NHS and public services of losing our share of UK funds; the cost to jobs of a new hard border with England; and the cost to families of giving up the Pound - there is no answer. It isn’t that they don’t have the answers, it is that no answer exists that will not lose them votes. The SNP leadership know there is no way to avoid the huge economic pain of leaving the UK, so in any referendum campaign, and in the event of an economic crisis following an exit from the Union, they have to ensure that the fault is with the Union, not with nationalism.
Opponents of Scexit have to recognise this attempt to reframe their strongest argument. They should ridicule the politicians using these arguments (though not the voters who might believe them) and ensure there is a constant commentary explaining to voters what the SNP are trying to do here. Avoid engaging in the questions as the SNP pose them (for example why doesn’t Scotland have a higher tax take that would pay for the higher public spending we enjoy) as participating in that argument only reinforces the SNP’s chosen framing. Instead, offer voters a way of spotting the SNP’s con in future.
When the promised plan for a separate state is finally published they will want to avoid explaining why we should choose to inflict such damage on ourselves. We need to continue to offer an alternative framing: rather than having a national debate about how to cope with the intractable economic problems of leaving the UK, let’s choose not to create those problems in the first place.
2. John Swinney admitted they would leave Scotland without an economic insurance policy.
A few months back Nicola Sturgeon squirmed on the BBC’s Today Programme as she was asked to confirm that her plan for a decade of Sterlingisation (using the Pound without a central bank and control of the currency) meant that Scotland wouldn’t be able to use quantitative easing (the creation of money by our central bank, the Bank of England).
John Swinney appeared on the same programme this week and admitted what Nicola Sturgeon couldn’t bring herself to say: under the SNP’s plans Scotland would not have access to the insurance policy of quantitative easing:
This isn’t an academic discussion. Twice in a decade - in the bailout of Scotland’s banks and in the pandemic - we would have faced disaster without the ability to ‘print money’ in this way. It is because we have a central bank and control over our currency that we have been able to borrow to fund the NHS in the pandemic, to pay for covid vaccines, to pay the wages of Scots through the furlough scheme.
Doing without this power is a wildly irresponsible policy, but the best that Swinney can do is to say we would borrow instead. Arguing that we wouldn’t have access to quantitative easing but that we would borrow shows either that he doesn’t understand the policy or, more likely, that he hopes we don’t. Quantitative easing is being used so that government can borrow the huge amount needed in this crisis, not as an alternative to borrowing. Swinney’s argument is that we can’t have mash for dinner because we don’t have any potatoes, but that we shouldn’t worry because we’ll have chips for tea instead.
We now have it on the record that the SNP would give up the economic insurance policy that has kept us afloat in recent times. The SNP are fond of claiming that we would tackle the economic crisis “like every other developed country". Here they are admitting we would be unlike every other developed country. They build their political case on the idea of “more powers” but here they are admitting we would, in the middle of a crisis, become less powerful.
3. The Greens are the SNP’s plan B
The Leaders speech at a party conference is like an extended version of the core script of a political party. The arguments and language used is a good indication of the strategic intent of the party. I’ve written before about how the SNP’s unnecessary deal with the Greens is about more than environmental window-dressing before the COP26 Conference in Glasgow, rather it is an attempt to protect the nationalist cause from the inevitable decline of a tired government that will be two decades in power at the next election:
“It means a change of gear for our Parliament and our country. It means, after three terms of government, that the SNP is not resting on our laurels. Instead, we are challenging ourselves in the interests of those we serve. And it means a renewed spirit of co-operation from two parties interested above all in changing our country, and the lives of everyone who lives here, for the better.”
Sturgeon goes out of her way to praise the Greens. It could not be more obvious what she wants if she held up a ‘second vote Greens’ sign while speaking.
Expect much more of this as a strategy for diverting disillusioned SNP voters to their plan B party. Those who oppose nationalism shouldn’t play into this strategy by giving more oxygen to the Greens than they deserve. The Tories forcing a vote on the Cambo oil field is good tactics- especially as Sturgeon continued to sit on the fossil fuels fence in interviews ahead of COP26 - but maybe it’s not good strategy. Watching the SNP-Greens betray their environmental credentials might offer schadenfreude, but it isn’t a strategy for winning over disappointed SNP voters.
By the way, John Ferry covers the SNP on this hypocrisy expertly in his column this week.
4. They’re desperate for a fight but most of us still want a quiet life.
It can’t be easy imaging yourself as the liberators of a people who don’t seem to share your view that they need a liberating.
The biggest barrier to leaving the UK isn’t the UK government but the Scottish people themselves, with just two out of the last twenty polls showing we would vote for Scexit. Despite all the ammunition handed to them by the Conservative government, they feel like a movement going nowhere.
We heard the reverse psychology argument again and again at conference: urging people to be angry that the UK government is telling them they can’t have something they don’t want anyway. Expect more interventions like this designed to provoke a reaction. So far the UK Government is sticking with the “not never, but not now” response which takes the air out of this balloon.
In 2014 the SNP forgot that the undecided voters weren’t as attracted to the idea of a nationalist adventure as they were and so they didn’t address the issues they cared about. They’re making the same mistake again. They’re so desperate to re-run the referendum that they’ve forgotten that most voters hate the idea of another bitter fight or are happy to put the question off indefinitely (the mañana voters I’ve covered before). So rather than explaining why it’s such an urgent priority while we’re still fighting Covid and its economic consequences, they’ve leapt straight to an argument that is based on a false premise: that people want this vote but are being denied it. In fact polls this week suggested only the core nationalist vote want another referendum on Nicola Sturgeon’s timetable.
5. Even Nicola Sturgeon’s own adviser isn’t convinced
A familiar tactic of the nationalists, when they cannot give specific answers to the questions undecided voters have, is to point to other countries. We’re left with the strange phenomenon of the Scottish nationalists who want to talk about any country other than Scotland. They imagine we could have the low corporate taxes of Ireland, the high welfare spending of Norway, the economic growth of post-soviet Baltic states, the weather of Greece…
Sturgeon’s conference speech recycled this old trope:
“For countries of Scotland’s size, independence works….It works for Denmark, for Ireland, for Austria, for Norway, for Finland – and for so many others beside. These are disparate countries with different resources and economies. But independence works for all of them.”
Just a few days before her newly appointed, pro-Scexit economic adviser took apart that same argument criticising the lack of specificity in her plans:
“Instead of that what we’ve got is ‘Denmark is awesome, we should be like Denmark, if we were independent we would be Denmark’. No, you wouldn’t be Denmark. Denmark took 600 years to become Denmark. How do you become your own thing given where you’re starting? That’s the only thing that really needs to be answered.”
In the same interview, he also warned that independence was Brexit times ten:
“If your argument is that we need to do this because of Brexit, then Scotland separated from England is the biggest Brexit in history….pulling apart 30 years of economic integration with Europe is going to hurt, 300 is going to hurt a lot.
“That means one of two things. Either you have brass-plate independence — you declare independence, you get a vote, but nothing really changes, you put up some brass plates in Edinburgh, and nothing really changes, you keep the pound and all that stuff. Or you go for regulatory divergence — different currency, different economic policy, etc, which will entail significant short to medium-term costs. There’s no way around that. We know that because it’s Brexit times ten.”
With friends like that…
In case you missed it…
As yet more ageing ferries breaks down leaving islanders from Islay to Lewis in the lurch, and with no sign of the overdue, overbudget ferries at the SNP-run shipyard in Port Glasgow, contracts for desperately needed new ferries are set to go to shipyards in Romania, Turkey, and Poland rather than in Scottish yards.What a disaster for Scottish shipbuilding. Having run Ferguson Marine into the ground, Scottish Government agency CMAL is now offering CalMac ferry contracts to foreign shipyards. We could, and should, be building the whole CalMac ferry fleet on the Clyde.
Newly elected Michael Marra MSP is excellent on the gap between the challenges faced by our economy and public services and the ambition of the SNP’s programme for government in the Stooshie podcast. He articulates the anger and frustration that so many Scots feel in a way other politicians could learn from.
The shameful record on drugs deaths appears to be continuing with 722 drug deaths in the first six months of the year. The latest excellent report by Peter A Smith on Scotland’s drugs problem is worth watching.
It has been reported that more nationalist organisations were coached by a senior SNP official into claiming money intended to support businesses struggling due to covid.
SNP MSPs questions to their leader have long been like the infamous question from Jim White to Brain Laudrup (“Can I just ask: how come you’re so good?”) but normally she at least joins in with the fiction that she’s being held to account. For the second time in a week, Nicola Sturgeon read out the wrong response to a planted soft-soap question from an SNP backbencher. However embarrassing it is for the First Minister, it’s humiliating for the backbenchers revealed as thinking their job is to cheerlead for their party rather than stand up for their communities.
Humza Yousaf claims that independence is the only way to protect the NHS from privatisation, despite his campaign for independence being run by a man who believes the NHS should be privatised in order to cut taxes on corporations and wealth.A reminder that the NHS is controlled by the Scottish Parliament and that the SNP's independence campaign is run by a guy who believes the NHS should be privatised so we can cut taxes on wealth and corporations.WATCH 📺 Humza Yousaf tells the SNP conference that independence is the only way to protect Scotland's NHS from being sold off by the Tories https://t.co/CvQRlv9XNnSunday National @SunScotNational