Scotland politics

What to look out for at the SNP conference

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Image caption Ms Sturgeon will address delegates at a packed conference hall on Tuesday afternoon

The SNP's autumn conference opens on Sunday afternoon, with thousands of party members descending on Glasgow's SEC Centre for the event.

The conference is the party's first since June's general election, when it lost 21 of the 56 seats it won in 2015 - including those of former leader Alex Salmond and its deputy leader Angus Robertson.

But the SNP remains the dominant force in Scottish politics, having formed the Scottish government for the past decade, and the packed conference hall will send out a message to its rivals that the party has no intention of departing the stage anytime soon.

The faithful are likely to have been buoyed by the recent announcement of a Scotland-wide ban on fracking - and galvanised by events in Catalonia, where the independence movement enjoys close links to its counterpart in Scotland.

Here are some things to look out for at the conference.


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The general election result has taken some of the heat out of the independence debate - for now at least.

But the pursuit of Scottish independence remains the SNP's primary reason for being, and no conference would be complete without a rapturous reaction from delegates to any mention of it from their leader.

Expect Ms Sturgeon to emphasise that an independent Scotland is still very much the objective - and to refute any suggestions that the dream has died.

The party is likely to be urged to work on detailed ideas and strategies to ensure it is ready for the moment when any future referendum is called.

But the first minister is unlikely to deviate from her previous insistence that an independence referendum will only be considered once the terms of Brexit are clearer - and there will be no date set for a future vote.

The day job

Opposition parties have enjoyed some success by attempting to depict Ms Sturgeon and her government as being obsessed with independence at the expense of responsibilities such as health and education.

Expect government ministers, including the first minister, to insist that they have always been getting on with the day job, and that any suggestions to the contrary are simply the fantasies of their opponents.

John Swinney, the education secretary and deputy first minister, will open the conference on Sunday by highlighting achievements across a number of departments - including his own.

It would also be reasonable to expect a number of new policy announcements throughout the conference - including on Scotland's new social security powers.


Image copyright AFP
Image caption Pro-Catalonia rallies have been held in several Scottish towns and cities

They may be gathering in Glasgow - but the thoughts of many SNP members will be hundreds of miles away in Barcelona.

The two independence movements have had close links since the 2014 Scottish referendum, and several leading SNP figures travelled to Catalonia ahead of last week's disputed referendum.

There has been speculation that Catalonia will attempt to declare independence on Monday - the second day of the three-day conference.

If that happens, expect considerable excitement from rank-and-file SNP members, as well as MPs and MSPs who are overwhelmingly sympathetic to the Catalan cause.

But any declaration could prove tricky for Ms Sturgeon, who will immediately come under pressure to say whether or not she recognises Catalonia as an independent state.

Ms Sturgeon was widely praised for her condemnation of the violent response by the Spanish authorities to the Catalan government's attempts to hold an independence referendum.

But while her statements have stressed the importance of self-determination, they have also called for talks between the two sides to resolve the issue amicably.

And she has also not explicitly endorsed the outcome of the referendum, in which 90% of those who voted were said to have backed independence - but on a turnout of just 42%.

Party standing

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There will almost inevitably be some reflection on the party's general election performance - but this will fall far short of any kind of inquest, and there will certainly be no Theresa May-style "apology" from the first minister or any of her team.

For one thing, the SNP still won by far the most seats, and comfortably the largest share of the votes - and party strategists calculate that activists are not in a mood for solemn reflection, nor demanding answers.

Expect, then, an upbeat approach, with the divisions in other parties gleefully highlighted alongside predictions that the SNP will continue to thrive.

Mhairi Black

Image copyright Reuters

Ms Sturgeon will, of course, be the star attraction - but if Ms Black's barnstorming performances at previous conferences are anything to go by, her speech on Tuesday morning should serve to fire-up the rank and file ahead of her leader's keynote address later that afternoon.

Ms Black, who became Westminster's youngest MP for centuries when she was elected two years ago, will appear on stage alongside another of the party's rising stars, Transport Secretary Humza Yousaf, for a speech on "making Scotland's voice heard".

The Economy

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Finance Secretary Derek Mackay will set out his thoughts on the forthcoming UK Budget in his speech on Sunday afternoon - as well as on his subsequent Scottish budget.

Expect some challenges to the chancellor and, perhaps, some hints about Mr Mackay's thoughts on the Scottish rate of income tax.

The party will also be keen to trumpet its recent announcement that it is lifting the public sector pay cap in Scotland - and to call on the UK government to do the same.


Image copyright Reuters

It is probably no coincidence that this will be the first topic to be debated after the conference formally opens on Sunday afternoon.

The SNP is determined to confront the issue, with Brexit secretary Mike Russell due to speak and the UK's impending departure from the EU likely to feature prominently in every other major speech.

Watch for any hints that the party is looking to edge away from the staunchly pro-EU stance it has adopted in recent years - which many observers believe it ultimately will.

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