Will the SNP’s policy revamp get Scottish swing voters to say yes?

Ewen MacAskill
Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon gestures to the audience after making her closing speech during the Scottish National Party conference in Aberdeen on Saturday. Photograph: Michal Wachucik/AFP/Getty Images

The Scottish National Party is this weekend engaged in a revamp of policies on currency, Europe, migration, defence and other issues in the hope of winning over swing voters in the event of a second Scottish independence referendum.

Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon hopes to neutralise the issues that badly damaged the failed independence campaign in 2014.

The SNP, which met this weekend for its spring conference in Aberdeen, is considering policies that would see the Scots having their own currency, joining the European Free Trade Association, which would allow access to the European single market without their joining the European Union or the euro, and welcoming migrants, in contrast with Conservative-run England.

The SNP is already warning its parliamentarians and activists to adopt a less aggressive and less overtly nationalistic campaign than 2014’s in an effort to bring over the swing voters. A poll this month suggested that a referendum would be decided by a bloc of swing voters, mainly women, relatively well-off and predominantly left-leaning.

Senior SNP figures rejected outright a plan put forward by Gordon Brown on Saturday to press for a UK federal system as an alternative to independence.

In a BBC interview, SNP deputy leader Angus Robertson expressed scepticism about the ability of Labour to fulfil any such projects soon. “The Labour party is not in a position to deliver a pizza at the moment,” he said.

The former first minister and now SNP spokesman at Westminster on foreign affairs, Alex Salmond, echoed this. “Let’s assume Gordon was sincere in 2014. The same difficulty presents itself now in 2017. His only route to delivering this … is via some future Labour government adopting his proposal,” he said.

“The difficulty with that is obvious. Nobody believes there’s going to be a Labour government in two years or 20.”

The Scottish parliament will, on Tuesday, begin a debate on a referendum and the following day is expected to approve it, backed by 63 SNP members and six Greens. The ball then moves to Theresa May and Westminster.

Salmond, speaking on the sidelines of the conference, told reporters: “What I believe will happen is that the UK government will have no choice but to agree to an independence referendum and [that] that referendum will deliver a yes vote.”

Sturgeon proposed last Monday the referendum be held in autumn 2018 or spring 2019, roughly around the time May might be concluding the details of a Brexit deal. May has not specified a date, though she seems to be thinking along the lines of 2021 or later, in the hope that the SNP might no longer be dominant after a 2020 Westminster general election, or after the Scottish parliament election in 2021. The SNP does not seem fixated on a specific date and might settle for 2020.

If May digs in, the SNP will mount a campaign to put pressure on the UK government. This could initially involve marches and petitions. One proposal was that Sturgeon could resign, sparking a Scottish parliamentary election to seek a mandate, but her advisers say she already has a mandate.

Pitting Scotland against London works for the SNP. Its councillors and candidates for the local elections in May predicted that the national issue will override local concerns in that campaign, in which the SNP is expected to make huge gains at Labour’s expense, including taking control of Glasgow.

John Young, from Kirkcudbright, who is standing for the SNP in Dumfries and Galloway, predicted the SNP could take control of the city from Labour in alliance with the Greens. “Because of the referendum, the elections will be about independence again,” he said. “Every time Theresa May speaks, it is worth a 100 votes to the SNP.”

Geoff Aberdein, Salmond’s former chief of staff, writing in the Holyrood magazine, which mainly covers the Scottish parliament, said: “To win this referendum – and to win it well – will require a narrative that transcends party politics, providing a reset from previously held allegiances.”

He cautioned against re-running arguments from the 2014 campaign, saying voters “need to hear a detailed case for a better future, based on the reality of now”. He warned against “aggressive ridiculing” of political positions that could alienate swing voters.

All the weaknesses that have dogged the SNP over the years, and which cost it the independence referendum, are being worked on. Sturgeon set up a commission in September under economist and former SNP member of the Scottish parliament Andrew Wilson to address currency in the next referendum, if there is one, and other difficult issues such as trade, the Scottish deficit and, one of the most potent of all, EU membership.

On the big issue of currency, the SNP policy in 2014 was to claim that it could remain in the currency union, able to continue using the pound, and was left badly exposed when the Treasury rejected this. One option under consideration this time around is for Scotland to have its own currency.

Scotland could do something similar to Ireland when it became independent in 1922, when it kept the pound for six years and then pegged its own currency to the pound for decades. Denmark, which is often cited by the SNP as a model, pegs the krone to the euro. A less appealing model would be to float a Scottish currency along the lines of the fluctuating New Zealand dollar.

Europe could be less problematic this time around, given the UK is leaving the EU. Although Scotland voted overwhelmingly in favour of remaining in the EU, a substantial bloc – 38% – voted for Brexit. A likely solution for the SNP would be to campaign not for applying for re-entry to the EU but for the European Economic Area, which would allow Scotland access to the European single market, which is what Sturgeon has said the SNP wants. It could join the European Free Trade Association, which is made up of Norway, Iceland, Switzerland and Liechtenstein, all of which have access to the single market.

Such a compromise could blunt the criticism of SNP members opposed to the EU who argue that it makes no sense to become independent of Westminster, just to surrender sovereignty to Brussels.

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