Ian Swanson: Expect the unexpected as SNP members gather

Many SNP activists are keen to stage another referendum. Picture: John Devlin
Many SNP activists are keen to stage another referendum. Picture: John Devlin
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THE huge influx of new members to the SNP after the independence referendum has changed the party and injected an element of unpredictability into its decision making.

Last year’s annual conference in Aberdeen discomfited the leadership with calls for a more radical approach on both fracking and land reform.

And at the spring conference in Glasgow in March this year, one delegate used the opening session to attack the agenda as “self-congratulatory” and “complacent”.

Who knows what excitement lies in store for delegates over the next three days in Glasgow?

There is potential drama from the outset when the conference kicks off tomorrow with the announcement of the result of the deputy leadership election, prompted by Stewart Hosie’s decision to stand down after revelations about an affair.

Will Edinburgh East MP Tommy Sheppard succeed in taking the post, which he wants to use to galvanise the membership to win a fresh independence referendum whenever that might be called? Or will Angus Robertson, the party establishment’s favourite, add the deputy position to his existing role as Westminster leader?

It might be tempting to see a victory for Mr Sheppard as increasing pressure for an early second referendum, but the founder of The Stand comedy club knows timing is a serious business.

And he urges caution. “I don’t think anyone wants to rush into anything,” he says. “There is a degree of excitement, but very much tempered with a lot of thoughtfulness. People are being very nuanced about this.”

The problem for the SNP is that the surge of support for independence which it anticipated – and built its case for another referendum around – has not materialised. Polls suggest a slight increase in backing for Yes, but not to anything like the 60 per cent which Nicola Sturgeon was said to want before risking a fresh vote.

The SNP is having to face up to the fact that a significant number of its supporters did not share the party’s strong Remain stance on EU membership and are quite eager to be free of Brussels as well as London.

But if Brexit does not offer the path to independence which Ms Sturgeon and her colleagues had hoped, Mr Sheppard has indicated alternative grounds for calling another referendum are being discussed within the party – particularly the emergence of what he describes as “the most right-wing Conservative government in history”.

The tone set by last week’s Tory Party conference, and not least Theresa May’s own speech as leader, has reinforced concerns about what Brexit means for what Britain will look like in future.

The focus on immigration and the threat to make companies publish details of how many foreign workers they employ do not fit with the views and priorities of most politicians in Scotland.

And if that continues to be the emphasis for Mrs May’s government then it could well be seen as a potential trigger for a new attempt at independence.

The whole question of a second referendum will inevitably dominate the conference. Ms Sturgeon will have to try to balance the enthusiasm of many activists with the careful calculations about how such a vote could go.

She will resist a new referendum until she is confident of winning. But she needs to get the membership to stick with her.