Nicola Sturgeon said a renewed push for Scottish independence would have to wait until the “fog of Brexit” cleared, as she urged members of her Scottish National party to be patient over the drive for separation from the UK.
In a speech to the SNP’s autumn conference on Tuesday, the first minister substituted rousing rhetoric and policy symbolism for specific plans as she sought to buy time to come up with a new independence strategy.
Speaking days after a large demonstration in Edinburgh stepped up pressure from rank-and-file supporters, Ms Sturgeon repeatedly assured the SNP faithful that independence was coming, but made clear any decision on a new campaign was dependent on the outcome of the UK’s negotiations to leave the EU.
“As we wait — impatiently, at times, I know — for this phase of negotiations to conclude and for the fog of Brexit to clear, be in no doubt about this. The last two years have shown why Scotland needs to be independent.”
The weekend rally demonstrated “the passion in our movement”, Ms Sturgeon said, but added: “Our job is to take that passion and blend it with pragmatism, perseverance and patience to persuade those not yet persuaded.”
While opinion polls show no majority for Scottish independence, some SNP members believe that the party must quickly launch a new push to leave the UK, calling for another referendum to follow the 2014 vote that rejected separation.
In a taste of the “passion” Ms Sturgeon needs to control, Angus MacNeil, an SNP member of the UK parliament, warned on Monday that Nationalists must not “dither” as he said a rebel army of Scottish Highlanders had done during their failed march on London in 1745.
Some members were also unenthusiastic about Ms Sturgeon’s pledge at the start of the conference that SNP MPs would back a second UK referendum on Brexit that pro-EU campaigners hope could keep the UK in the EU.
The new SNP backing for a second Brexit referendum was a bit “wishy washy” and a potential waste of party energy, said Andy McFarlane, a former police officer and SNP delegate from Kirkcudbright in south-west Scotland.
Mr McFarlane said he did not believe Brexit could really be stopped and noted that many SNP supporters actually backed leaving the EU.
But dissent at the conference was muted and the SNP appeared far more united behind its leader than its fractious Labour or UK Conservative rivals. The conference endorsed by acclaim Ms Sturgeon’s new line on a second Brexit referendum.
Mr McFarlane insisted his doubts about the Brexit stance did not imply a wider lack of confidence in the party’s overall approach on independence. “I’m happy to be led by Nicola Sturgeon,” he said.
Many delegates echoed Ms Sturgeon’s caution, saying it would be disastrous for their independence cause to suffer a second defeat. Scottish voters in 2014 backed remaining in the UK by 55 per cent to 45.
“We have to see how Brexit’s going to land,” said Alex Wilson, an SNP councillor in Glasgow. “The time has got to be right.”
One of Ms Sturgeon’s biggest tactical problems is the lack of an obvious way to force a new independence referendum. The UK government has made clear it would not agree such a vote before 2021 at least.
Some party members, including at least one MP, have suggested that Scotland could find a new route to independence. But Ms Sturgeon has made clear she is committed to the model of an agreed referendum that was established in 2014.
In her speech, she papered over the practicalities by merely insisting that obstruction by Westminster would be untenable.
“You can oppose independence, that is your democratic right, but you cannot — and you will not — deny Scotland’s right to choose,” Ms Sturgeon said, prompting a standing ovation from party faithful.
The first minister’s speech portrayed the SNP’s Scotland as a caring and inclusive alternative to government by a callous Westminster, proudly citing new Scottish £400 a year payments for carers. She announced a £1,600 increase in the annual student nurse bursary to £8,100 next year and £10,000 thereafter.
“We know the value of our nurses. We know the value of our NHS,” Ms Sturgeon said. “To anyone from across the UK attracted to a career in nursing, our message is simple: come to Scotland.”
But in an address echoing the conference theme of “Hope”, Ms Sturgeon offered few substantive new policies. The government would “explore the feasibility” of establishing a national infrastructure company, she said.
She promised to extend efforts to use the Scottish government's devolved powers to promote “fair work criteria”. Such criteria require companies to pay the living wage, restrict use of zero-hour contracts and ensure gender pay equality.
“By the end of this parliament, we will extend fair work criteria to as many funding streams and business support grants as we can,” Ms Sturgeon said.
Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard said the SNP was ignoring the potential disastrous fiscal implications of leaving the UK, given Scotland’s relatively high public spending and low tax revenues.
“Nicola Sturgeon delivered plenty of rhetoric for the party faithful but dodged any detail on the new economic prospectus for separation,” Mr Leonard said.
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