Nicola Sturgeon began her conference speech by presenting a vision of “two futures” for Scotland and the world – open vs closed, Remain vs Leave, Trump and Johnson vs the SNP. But it is best understood as a speech to two audiences –her own party, and the Scottish public.
Just as tricky as any media question the First Minister has had to field from any interviewer over the past three days in Aberdeen is a persistent gripe from the fringes of her party and the more radical elements of the broader independence movement – that her gradualist roadmap to independence is too cautious.
Though she and her allies have rubbished – and comprehensively defeated – grassroots proposals to leave the UK through means other than a legal independence referendum, her speech confronted criticisms of her caution head on. She stressed that she would seek permission to hold an independence referendum next year, regardless of the outcome of this phase of the Brexit process, and hammered home her desire to see independence sooner, rather than later.
Tellingly, however, she did not say how her government would respond in the event that Boris Johnson and Alister Jack, the Scotland Secretary, refused her request. Instead, she claimed that it was up to unionist parties to explain why they believed themselves entitled to refuse Scotland’s right to self-determination. Though a neat rebuke, it will not satisfy her internal critics – who believe the so-called plan B repeatedly rejected by the SNP leadership is needed for precisely that reason.
The broader of Sturgeon’s two messages, however, was pitched to the more important of her two audiences: the Scottish electorate. Her big arguments? That Brexit and Boris Johnson had fatally undermined the promises made by the No campaign in 2014; that shared UK institutions like the NHS and welfare state would be protected, rather than threatened, by independence and SNP policies like free personal care for the elderly; that small countries flourished economically; and that only leaving the Union and replacing it with EU membership could guarantee Scotland’s place as a “beacon of shared humanity and compassion”.
It was, strikingly, as heavy on economic arguments as it was those in favour of Scotland becoming an open, tolerant, liberal independent state. In particular, her argument that an independent Scotland would act as a bridge between Brexit Britain and the EU, and a “magnet for international investment” – lines that, once upon a time, more thoughtful members of the DUP would privately apply to Northern Ireland – reflect how the SNP has over the past year recalibrated its approach on big, existential questions about the economy so that it leans into them, rather than leaving unionism to set the argument. Brexit has made doing so much easier.
Will it pay dividends? Sturgeon has calculated that a majority of Scottish voters share her revulsion to the state of politics in London. “I’m sick of Westminster,” she said in her peroration. “I’m sick of Brexit. And I’ve had more than enough of people like Jacob Rees-Mogg lounging across the benches of the House of Commons, lording it over us as if they own the place.”
Her gamble is that, come the next general election and the independence referendum she believes will follow, those same voters follow that ill-feeling to its logical conclusion, and reject those politics entirely through independence. But the risk is that notwithstanding the strength of her analysis and optimistic message, that voters draw the opposite lesson from the Brexit process, and concluding that the pain and risks of leaving one political and economic union for an uncertain future in another outweigh it.
In that respect, much will depend on just who is responding to her arguments as the face of the No campaign – and the force and creativity with which they can do so. And, for that matter, whether Sturgeon is still around to make her own.