Set­backs mag­nify Stur­geon’s task

The Irish Times - - Comment & letters -

If the ac­cla­ma­tion that greeted Ni­cola Stur­geon at the Scot­tish Na­tional Party (SNP) con­fer­ence in Glas­gow this week is any guide, her po­si­tion as leader is unas­sail­able. But there is no mask­ing the fact that her party is in a more dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tion than at any point since she suc­ceeded Alex Sal­mond in 2014. After an as­ton­ish­ing re­sult in the 2015 Bri­tish gen­eral elec­tion, in which the Scot­tish na­tion­al­ists came within three seats of a clean sweep, the party was brought back to earth in the snap elec­tion last June, when it lost 21 of the 56 seats it won in 2015 – in­clud­ing those of Sal­mond and deputy leader An­gus Robert­son. The re­ver­sal was widely blamed on Stur­geon’s de­mand for a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum on Scot­tish in­de­pen­dence. A ma­jor­ity of Scot­tish vot­ers op­posed Brexit in last year’s ref­er­en­dum, but ini­tial SNP hopes that the UK’s im­pend­ing de­par­ture from the Euro­pean Union would give new im­pe­tus to the sep­a­ratist cause have dimmed with the pass­ing months.

In any po­lit­i­cal party, suc­cess con­ceals in­ter­nal di­vi­sions while set­backs mag­nify them. So it is with the SNP, where voices are now be­ing raised – in par­tic­u­lar among those who rep­re­sent the one-third of SNP vot­ers who opted for Leave in the Brexit ref­er­en­dum – about the party’s en­thu­si­asm for the EU. An­other point of dis­agree­ment is the tim­ing of the next in­de­pen­dence ref­er­en­dum. In her con­fer­ence ad­dress, Stur­geon fo­cused on do­mes­tic is­sues and played down the prospect of a new plebiscite. That re­flects one of her chief dif­fi­cul­ties. Hav­ing ini­tially in­di­cated that the Brexit ref­er­en­dum would bring a vote on Scot­tish state­hood closer, Stur­geon has re­cently avoided com­mit­ting to a date, say­ing a de­ci­sion will not be made un­til the shape of the Brexit deal is clear. It’s a po­si­tion that sounds far too vague to the more im­pa­tient party mem­bers.

In the back­ground, mean­while, are per­sis­tent pol­icy headaches fac­ing the SNP-led coali­tion that Stur­geon pre­sides over as first min­is­ter. Pres­sure on the public fi­nances makes it a chal­lenge for the Scot­tish gov­ern­ment to ful­fil SNP elec­tion prom­ises, which in­clude the lift­ing of a public sec­tor pay cap. Aware that its elec­toral for­tunes hinge on its per­for­mance in gov­ern­ment, the SNP must tack left so as to con­front a resur­gent Labour Party un­der Jeremy Cor­byn but must also en­sure it can put up a fight to re­gain for­mer strongholds in the north­east that fell to the Scot­tish Con­ser­va­tives in June. A YouGov poll last week­end showed just four out of 10 Scots ap­prove of Stur­geon’s record.

The SNP none­the­less has plenty go­ing for it. It re­mains the dom­i­nant party in Scot­land, and un­less there is an early UK elec­tion it has sev­eral years to re­build and re-en­er­gise its base be­fore hav­ing to face the vot­ers again. But Brexit re­mains the wild card that could change ev­ery­thing.

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