Ian Swanson: SNP plays the percentages

Alex Salmond is gearing up for the SNP's conference. Picture: Jane Barlow

Alex Salmond is gearing up for the SNP's conference. Picture: Jane Barlow

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THEY’LL repeal the bedroom tax, aim for a better life-work balance, raise pensions, challenge tax avoidance, encourage employee-owned partnerships and build a fairer, more prosperous society – or at least that’s what the motions say.

The SNP’s annual conference, which gets under way in Perth today, is looking ahead not just to next year’s referendum but also to the policies the party would pursue in an independent Scotland.

Alex Salmond will be hoping to avoid a repeat of the TV interview at the party’s spring conference in Inverness when Eddie Mair teased him by asking: “The weather will be better in an independent Scotland, right?”

“I haven’t made that commitment,” the First Minister replied.

The polls may all be telling them independence is not going to happen – a survey last week made it No 44 per cent, Yes 25 per cent.

But the Nationalists have spent their lives working and campaigning for this. They are not going to let adverse opinion polls blow them off course.

The mood among activists arriving for the four-day gathering is upbeat.

They believe many voters have yet to decide or have not finally made up their mind. People can still be persuaded, they say.

But winning a Yes vote is arguably an even bigger task even than the SNP’s stunning and unprecedented success in winning an overall majority at Holyrood in 2011 – that only required 45 per cent of the votes, independence needs over 50 per cent.

It may not be Mission Impossible, though. A poll this time last year found that if Scots believed the Tories were going to win the next Westminster election in 2015, support for independence rocketed from the mid-30s to 52 per cent.

The SNP has spent a lot of time trying to reassure the public that much would carry on as usual after independence – the Queen, the currency, even the DVLA.

But some of the issues up for debate at the conference this week offer a chance to talk about what would be different.

One senior figure says that will be welcomed by activists.

“People want to feel reassured a lot of things will stay the same, but they also want to know what will be different and get a clearer idea of the vision,” he says.

“The whole ides of independence is that Scotland will be better. Independence is about having the power to change the things that don’t work while keeping the things that do work.”

Defeat in the referendum would be an enormous blow to the SNP – but not a fatal one.

The Nationalists were elected in 2007 and re-elected in 2011 because they “parked” independence as an issue by promising a referendum and because people judged they would do a better job than Labour at running the country.

Whatever happens about independence, it is still open to voters to decide they would like the SNP to carry on governing and unless Labour manages to turn things around quite dramatically, that may well be the most likely outcome.

One poll last month put the SNP 13 points ahead in constituency voting intention with 45 per cent to Labour’s 32 per cent and 18 points ahead on the list – 46 per cent to 28 per cent.

This will be the last SNP annual conference before the historic vote. But even if Scotland opts not to back independence, it won’t necessarily decide to sack the SNP.