EDINBURGH — In office for 13 years with no end to power in sight, the Scottish National Party are closer than ever to achieving their desired prize of independence.
For the first time, opinion polling consistently points to majority support for the country to split from the rest of the United Kingdom. SNP leader and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is overwhelmingly popular, her handling of the coronavirus pandemic well-regarded compared with Boris Johnson’s government.
Opinion polling also points to a clear SNP victory in next May’s elections to the Holyrood Scottish parliament — which the party thinks would give them a mandate for a second independence referendum. The U.K. government disagrees.
Despite the party’s strong position, it remains a divided one over strategy, personalities and, on occasion, policy.
Scotland’s Finance Secretary Kate Forbes — sometimes touted as a potential successor to Sturgeon — played down the party’s splits, telling POLITICO that the party isn’t as disunited as it is depicted in media reports and that debate is healthy.
“As somebody who is involved with my local branches and the grassroots, I don’t think that the party is as disunited as it’s often portrayed or presented. Whether it’s on timings of another referendum, the nature of an independent Scotland or devolved policy areas, debate is good,” she said.
Ahead of the SNP’s annual conference, which starts Saturday, POLITICO runs through the splits, differences of opinion and “debate” that has come to define the party arguably as strongly as their ultimate goal of independence.
Timing is everything
Talk of SNP history often focuses on two traditions — that of gradualists and fundamentalists.
Dominant in the party leadership for decades, the former is the view that Scottish independence can only be won through incremental gains, first gaining Scots’ trust and proving the country can govern itself before pushing for full separation from the U.K. Nationalists subscribing to the latter view argue the party should emphasize independence and push for it loudly and without fear.
Never the tidiest of definitions, most elected SNP officials would argue they don’t fall easily into either camp.
But nevertheless, in today’s party, this old dividing line is represented in internal battles over the timing of a future referendum — and what to do if Westminster says no.
The boisterous leader of the SNP at Westminster, Ian Blackford, lit a match to some of the tensions earlier this month when he told the Sunday National newspaper that a second referendum “must” be held in 2021.
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The call was sharply rebuffed by figures in the party, one of whom told the Times that “it won’t be Ian Blackford who gets to decide the date. It will be the first minister and the Cabinet.”
Blackford is the most senior figure in the SNP to have diverged from the Holyrood leadership’s position, which has been more cautious and noncommittal about the timescale of any future referendum after the election due to the coronavirus pandemic. He represents a sect of new SNP fundamentalism that advocates a firm commitment to a referendum next year.
Sturgeon set out her own position Thursday, neither ruling out the prospect of a 2021 referendum or endorsing the idea but instead calling for a vote in the “earlier part of the next Scottish parliament,” which is due to last four years.
But what if Westminster says no?
Boris Johnson has repeatedly said he won’t countenance a second independence referendum. In his short premiership, he has already formally rejected the idea and No. 10 has been clear that it doesn’t view a victory by any margin next May as a mandate.
SNP politicians are divided over how to respond.
Sturgeon has always said Scotland should agree a referendum under the same terms as the 2014 vote, which was granted by a so-called Section 30 order, a reference to part of the 1998 Scotland Act which, when triggered, allows Holyrood to pass laws in areas that are normally set by Westminster.
The argument goes that the U.K. government’s position of rejecting another transfer of powers is unsustainable if SNP electoral success continues. Finance Secretary Forbes supports this view, adding that government opposition to a referendum is only increasing support for independence.
Forbes said: “Every time they say no, I strongly suggest that they are recruiting more people to the cause of independence.
“You don’t have to support independence to realize that for the U.K. government to continue to say no is unsustainable. My hope will be that the U.K. government comes to see it themselves, because they’re not doing their own cause any favors right now.”
Other SNP figures disagree. Some, including Edinburgh MP Joanna Cherry, have called for a legal testing of the waters by holding a referendum even if Westminster doesn’t transfer power for one.
Cherry said Friday in a lecture to a Welsh university that the Scottish government should put forward a “carefully crafted bill” for a second referendum to Holyrood in the event of a pro-independence majority in the election. Also a QC, Cherry said it would then be for the courts to determine if a legal referendum could proceed.
Some go even further. Angus MacNeil, an MP from the Western Isles, and Chris McEleny, a councilor with a wide following within the independence movement, have called for a more radical “plan B.”
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The pair have argued that if Westminster refuses to consider a second referendum, next May’s election should instead become a proxy — meaning that a majority SNP win would be a mandate to open immediate negotiations for an independent Scotland. They claimed a debate on “plan B” at the party’s conference was blocked by an SNP committee.
Sturgeon has said that either alternative path “would not carry the legal, political and diplomatic weight that is needed.”
The specter of Alex Salmond
Former First Minister Alex Salmond retains an elephantine presence in the party, despite not holding any elected office since losing his seat in 2017.
The subject of a Scottish government probe investigating sexual misconduct in 2018, Salmond challenged the government’s internal investigation and pursued a judicial review. The review found that the investigation against him — by the government he used to lead — had been unlawful and tainted by bias.
After Salmond was also acquitted of all offences in a criminal trial earlier this year, a Holyrood inquiry is currently looking into the Scottish government’s mishandling of the initial investigation.
The affair has damaged relations between Sturgeon and Salmond — once close allies and friends as first and deputy first minister — in a very public way.
Salmond still has plenty of allies in the party. Some, like Cherry, have been building up a base of support and have on occasion publicly disagreed with the current leadership on strategy and independence planning.
Others are much less tactful. East Lothian MP Kenny MacAskill — a former Scottish government justice secretary under Salmond — has been vocally critical of Sturgeon and the party’s direction on multiple occasions.
In September, MacAskill went as far as to call for the suspension of the SNP’s CEO Peter Murrell over leaked WhatsApp messages he sent during the Scottish government’s investigation into Salmond.
As well as his powerful role within the party’s internal structures, Murrell is also married to Sturgeon. He is due to provide oral evidence at Holyrood’s Salmond inquiry next month.
What — and who — is next?
There have been some minor splits from the SNP in the last year.
Two new pro-independence parties have registered with the electoral commission ahead of May’s election, with former SNP members and some former politicians joining forces with either the Action for Independence Party or Independence for Scotland Party.
Further physical splits are unlikely — even SNP critics of the current leadership recognize that a larger split would potentially damage the strong polling a Yes vote currently enjoys.
Critics and supporters alike are instead beginning to look ahead to the potential prospect of a leadership contest.
Though Sturgeon has served six years as first minister and has indicated she will at least serve another term if reelected, an inquiry is currently investigating whether she broke the ministerial code during her government’s investigation into Salmond.
She told the BBC Thursday that she was “satisfied” with her conduct and the decisions she took, refusing to say whether she would resign if the inquiry ruled against her.
Sturgeon could also come under pressure if the strategy to force the concession of a referendum from Westminster fails after the election.
Waiting in the wings for any potential contest are the likes of MP Joanna Cherry, who increased her profile via a Brexit court case last year and is said to be considering a leadership bid at some stage. Earlier this year, she lost out on an attempt to swap a Westminster seat for Holyrood one when the party changed selection rules.
Cherry claimed the rules were secretly changed in a bid to “hobble” her candidacy, which directly rivaled Angus Robertson, an ally of Sturgeon’s and also seen as a potential successor.
Other potential candidates sometimes mentioned include Holyrood Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf, the young left-wing MP Mhairi Black and Finance Secretary Kate Forbes, though she told POLITICO in an interview that she doesn’t want the job.
The only certainty in any future leadership contest is that it is unlikely to run as smoothly as in 2014 — when the keys for office passed from Salmond to Sturgeon without challenge.