The SNP’s spring conference struck a combative tone from the start, as Angus Robertson, the party’s Westminster leader, told Theresa May she had better not dare block a second referendum before Brexit.
The direct attack on the prime minister threw red meat to the SNP activists packed into the Aberdeen conference hall in what was an already febrile atmosphere caused by May’s speech saying “now is not the time” for another poll.
“If the British government tells the Scottish people you’re not getting a referendum, then the whole of Scotland will erupt. Even the people who are sympathetic to Westminster control,” said George Paterson, 82, who has been coming to conferences for the last 60 years, including the first one of just a few dozen people.
The former civil servant, member of the armed forces and now secretary of the Grampian Senior Citizens Forum, said there would be no stopping independence, and that the country could not trust May who “voted to stay in the EU and then gave 101% authority to the Brexiteers”.
From the conference platform, Robertson argued it would be a democratic outrage for May to ignore Holyrood’s vote, especially after Scotland had opted to remain in the EU and its pleas for single market membership had been ignored.
Addressing the prime minister personally, he said: “Your mask has slipped and the real face of Tory arrogance is there for all to see.”
His focus would “set the tone for the rest of conference that what May is saying is not good enough”, said Rhiannon Spear, the convenor of the SNP youth wing.
“No one is calling for a referendum tomorrow, but certainly blocking it without any conversation at all is demonstrating the Tory arrogance as Angus said. May said yesterday she was acting on behalf of the whole of the UK, but she’s not. She’s just another Tory leader isn’t she?”
Anger with May dominated the first few hours of the event, which was packed with hundreds of delegates even on a wet Friday morning, but a number of big unanswered questions also hung over the conference.
Now embarked on their first steps towards the next referendum, SNP politicians and advisers have begun to face questions familiar from the last campaign about Scotland’s future currency and its relationship with the EU.
Paterson and Spear were adamant that there would be no problem staying in the EU if the referendum is held before Brexit occurs. The party will, however, have to work out how to appeal to its cohort of leave-sympathising supporters and swing voters who may not be ecstatic about the idea of staying under Brussels’ influence.
Toni Giugliano, a member of the SNP’s national executive and former Yes Scotland official, said the argument would have to be made to those voters that the priority was “independence first, and then if you want to campaign to get out of the EU that comes after, that is a matter for later”.
“It’s our job to convince Eurosceptic yes voters to vote yes in the referendum and deal with the European question later,” he said, adding that he was personally in favour of fully staying in the EU.
He said the membership was “obviously feeling very positive” after Sturgeon’s move towards an independence referendum, but needed to be careful to keep a calm tone.
“We need to be very measured about this. We need to make the case, respectfully, listen to the other side, listen above all to people who are undecided who voted no last time and listen to their concerns and try to address that,” he said. “We haven’t actually made the case yet. Right at the start, we need to make sure we take people with us and not just harden the firm vote.”
He was also adamant the SNP should not contemplate an indicative vote if May refused to give in to demands for a poll.
“We are simply not going to have an advisory referendum. It will be a legally recognised referendum that is recognised by other states and the EU and the world,” he said. “We just cannot go down that road. And it hasn’t been denied outright.”
In contrast, some activists are already willing to entertain the idea of Sturgeon acting without the permission of the UK government to hold a referendum.
“They’ve got a mandate just to go for independence. Theresa May cannot say that we haven’t,” says William Thomson, 72, from Livingston. The SNP supporter suggested there could be forces working against independence and has a theory that the UK government has paid Saudi Arabia to suppress the oil price as part of a move against Scotland.
“Theresa May is being dogmatic, saying you’re only a wee country and can just be ignored,” he said. “I run a company [supplying restaurants and clubs] and with Brexit we are going to lose £200,000. The Brexit thing plus Theresa May knocking back Scotland is really not on. The Scottish people should get the choice.”