The Scottish National Party were in high spirits at their conference last weekend in Aberdeen. After an extraordinary year in which their membership has boomed and their share of Scottish Westminster seats has increased nearly tenfold, they were full of the joys of unprecedented popularity. If there was one moment that summed this up, it was Nicola Sturgeon’s self-declared “ultimate selfie” at the end of her closing speech to delegates. Stood centre-stage, surrounded by her cabinet colleagues, with 3,500 of the SNP’s now hundred-thousand strong membership in the background, she looked like she was having a ball.
The SNP’s self-confidence could be viewed as surprising, given recent events however. Indeed, the party’s newfound success owes much to telling us that Labour has abandoned its left-wing principles. So, the unexpected election of Jeremy Corbyn might have left Sturgeon’s troops lamenting their careless wishes. But it hasn’t. Sturgeon has been developing an argument to address the arrival of Corbyn, which was already clear in both her opening and closing speeches at the weekend.
Labour’s perceived electability in England is now inextricably bound up with the question of a second referendum on Scottish independence. On the face of it, Sturgeon appeared to have little to say about a referendum. Much of her keynote speech was given over to big policy announcements on elective treatment centres for the NHS, qualified teachers in nurseries and a more generous carers’ allowance; all designed to smooth the path to another majority at Holyrood next spring. There were also barbs against David Cameron – a “pig headed” Prime Minister whose tax credit cuts amount to a “90% rate of income tax” for some families. Sturgeon told us she wanted independence as well, of course, but she re-emphasised that a new vote would be ruled-out until there is “clear evidence that opinion has changed and that independence has become the choice of a majority of people in Scotland.” Vague as that notion may be, it did make clear her view that the SNP should “build the case” for independence and “make it stronger” in anticipation of a new vote at some point in the future.
Support for independence has burgeoned intermittently over the past few decades, stimulated by the perception that Scotland has diverged politically from the rest of the UK. Indeed, what was once only seen as a demographic phenomenon has come to be viewed as a fundamental ideological rift. First Thatcherism, then New Labour, and finally Lib Dem coalition with the Tories have all reinforced this trope. The Yes campaign’s messaging during last year’s referendum, and Labour’s ill-fated decision to join the Tories in the cross-party Better Together camp, allowed the SNP to complete another leap towards their ultimate goal. In this year’s UK General Election, they decisively claimed from Labour the mantle of Scotland’s “we didn’t get what we voted for” party. Now they are tasked with turning that sentiment into majority support for independence.
It was with that goal in mind that Sturgeon accused Jeremy Corbyn of letting Labour “change him”. Akin to the attack-lines against Ed Miliband, the SNP charge against Corbyn is “you’re left wing, but not left wing enough.” Moreover, just in case Corbyn does turn out to be left-wing enough after all, the SNP charge against him will be “you can’t deliver a centre-left government in Westminster.” If that sounds like Sturgeon is trying to have her Dundee Cake and eat it, it’s probably because she is. Even the most ardent Scottish Nationalist can’t claim that the electoral maths of the Union (England makes up 85% of the UK population) is Labour’s fault. If you want to keep the Tories out of power, you have to win over traditionally conservative English voters.
But, to the SNP, the choice of political parties on the left is intolerable. They don’t see why Scotland should have to be limited to the incompetent Labour Party; better to go it alone, they will say. The burden on Corbyn’s shoulders is now to prove that he can deliver what Sturgeon will say is impossible – a Westminster majority. And that’s only if a Brexit doesn’t finish off the Union first. Which is why the SNP leader was in such a good mood.