SNP conference gets under way amid 'tinderbox of possibility'

James Matthews, Scotland Correspondent

The SNP is holding its conference in Glasgow amidst increased doubts over the prospect of a second independence referendum.

An eve-of-conference poll by YouGov for The Times suggests that Nicola Sturgeon's party will lose its pro-independence majority in Holyrood at the next Scottish Parliamentary elections.

It would undermine any effort to push for a referendum following the elections in 2021, as the Holyrood chamber would almost certainly block any attempt to secure a mandate for any referendum bid.

Prominent figures in the SNP view 2021 as the next realistic platform for a referendum, after the plan was shelved following their losses in June's Westminster election.

Having previously demanded a referendum by spring 2019, Ms Sturgeon has said she will wait until the outcome of Brexit is clear before deciding on her next move.

As SNP delegates gather in Glasgow, there is criticism in the wider independence movement of Ms Sturgeon's stewardship of the project.

Colin Fox, of the Scottish Socialist Party, told Sky News: "I think she's made a number of mistakes. I think, perhaps, the biggest difficulty the independence movement faces now is it's effectively been tangled together with the SNP. It was a movement for independence that became a political party and the choices that political parties make are different from the choices that movements make.

"You have to be big enough to admit your mistakes. The independence movement has not sufficiently examined why it lost in 2014. In my view, it lost because it presented a very conservative, with a small 'c', prospectus. We'll keep the pound, we'll keep the Queen, we'll keep NATO, we'll keep neoliberal corporations in charge - that isn't sufficient to persuade working-class Scotland, which makes up the majority, that their lives will be transformed."

The issue of Scottish independence is not on the agenda for debate in the main hall at this SNP conference. Naturally, however, a referendum - and when to hold one - is the subject of ongoing discussion in party circles.

Kevin Pringle is a columnist for The Sunday Times (Scotland) and formerly the SNP's communications director who remains an influential figure in the party.

He told Sky News: "We're now in a debate about the timescale of another referendum. I'm convinced there will be one. It's a question of whether it will be before the next Holyrood election or, perhaps more likely, after the next Holyrood election.

"The really important issue is if you look at the period since the last referendum, there have been three years now of support for independence being around the level it was at the time of the referendum - about 45%, last poll was 46%. In other words, support for independence in Scotland has never been this high for this long on Scottish political history and that's, of course, over a period when there hasn't been any formal campaigning for it.

"So I think when you've got that continuing very, very high level of support for independence, I think it is unavoidable that it must be put to the test again in a future referendum to see whether people do want to be part of Brexit Britain and all the problems and issues attached to that or if they want to choose a different future."

During its conference, the SNP will commit to efforts to secure the status of EU citizens in Scotland. It will pledge to meet the cost of EU nationals working in the public sector, should any charges arise as a result of UK Government policy.

The three-day conference begins as a constitutional stand-off intensifies in Catalonia.

Lesley Riddoch, a journalist and campaigner for Scottish independence, believes that events on the Iberian Peninsula will resonate in Scotland.

She told Sky News: "The political situation is so incredibly fluid at the moment. If you look at the Catalan situation, it's making a lot of people think again about how a nation, a region, behaves, when it's denied its desire to move towards a referendum. In terms of the percentage support there seems to be for independence, it's not that far away from where Scotland is.

"There's 45% that's never gone away and there's a very volatile situation. Theresa May is a dead prime minister walking. The only thing that's keeping her in office is the grandees fear of Boris Johnson being made prime minister or Jeremy Corbyn winning an election. Now, all of that is a tinderbox of possibility."

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