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Did the SNP conference set the course for independence?

Humza Yousaf
By Rachael Ward
19 October 2023
Public Affairs
party conference

As Humza Yousaf took to the stage at the SNP conference for the first time as party leader and Scotland’s First Minister, he was afforded a degree of sympathy from the party faithful for his personal ties to the conflict in the Middle East. But personal matters aside, Yousaf announced his new Scottish independence strategy, marking a departure from his predecessor.

Put simply, the plan is as follows: with the first line of the manifesto making a direct link between voting SNP and Scottish independence, if the SNP win a majority of seats at the next general election, they will claim to have a democratic mandate for departure from the UK. That is, if the party wins at least 29 seats, this would, so Yousaf insists, trigger “immediate negotiations” between the SNP and the UK Government for a second Scottish independence referendum.

Three immediate problems present themselves. First, the SNP currently has 43 seats in Westminster. As such, if the SNP loses as many as 14 seats at the next election, according to its new plan, it can still claim a mandate for independence. Indeed, if the party fares worse in the next election than it did in the last, it will somehow be in a better position to push the UK Government for another referendum. What’s more, it looks likely that the SNP will be in this precise situation come the election. Polls currently suggest the SNP will shed seats at the next election, not to mention last week saw the party lose to Labour in Rutherglen and Hamilton West.

Two problems remain: public ambivalence to independence and Westminster’s determination to deny it. The polls do not show sustained support for Scottish independence. Rather, support for leaving the United Kingdom continues to hover below 50 percent, while support for remaining takes the lead. If polls demonstrated undeniable sympathy for Scottish independence, it would be difficult to see how the UK Government could resist it, even though it retains the power to do so. But this is clearly not the case at present.

Which brings us to the next problem looming over Yousaf’s strategy, Westminster is not bound to bow to pressure from the SNP. Nor does it intend to. The Conservatives have claimed time and again that the last referendum in 2014 was a ‘once in a generation’ vote. In essence, the people had their chance and it’s time to put the matter to bed (at least for another fifty years or so). Meanwhile, Labour similarly shows no desire to enter negotiations with the SNP over independence, should it win office.

By an ironic twist of fate, today marks the day that former First Minister Nicola Sturgeon set as a target date for a second referendum. Shot down by the Supreme Court, Sturgeon resorted to ‘plan b’, to treat the next general election as a de facto referendum. As the party shifts its strategy away from both of Sturgeon’s plans, she has offered her “unequivocal support” for Yousaf’s new approach.

Unsurprisingly, not all SNP members were as enthusiastic. As SNP MP Pete Wishart put it, the plan falls flat when Westminster simply turns around and says no- which they no-doubt will. There is also some disquiet among activists over the optics of focusing so heavily on independence at the next election, given the country remains in the grips of the cost-of-living crisis. Some voters might find it distasteful if the SNP placed independence at the top of its agenda amidst soaring living costs and with families struggling to put food on the table.

It also remains to be seen whether the public will be sold by the SNP’s decision to brand the current circumstances as a ‘Westminster cost of living crisis’, as Yousaf stated in his speech. The rationale behind the slogan is that Scottish people have endured special suffering as a result of Brexit and the short-lived Truss tenure- an argument not entirely without merit. But it stretches credulity to suggest that the cost of living crisis is all Westminster’s doing, given the glaring international factors at play.

With the next UK general election still some way off, it remains to be seen how the SNP’s new Scottish independence strategy will pan out. But it is perhaps safe to say that Humza Yousaf has seldom set the SNP on an inexorable path to independence.