This hasn’t been a vintage SNP conference. Ministerial speeches have been low on quality, and the sparkle and fizz that defined these events in recent years has been missing. It’s been hard to avoid the sense that this is a party that knows it is past its peak, however loudly it shouts from the stage.
This is one reason that Humza Yousaf’s speech needed to lift the mood. Another is that the First Minister, who took over in March, has so far failed to win over Scotland’s voters – polls show low approval ratings. There is little confidence that he is up to the job, particularly coming after Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon, two giants of the independence movement. So this was a speech that had to show that Yousaf has grip, direction and ambition. To his credit, and in a number of ways, it did just that.
It was telling that it wasn’t until the latter stages that he got round to talking about Scottish independence. The SNP knows that voters – even many of those who would vote to leave the UK – have higher priorities right now. Instead this was a policy-rich speech with a few show-stopping announcements.
The most striking of these was the issuance of Scotland’s first-ever bond, seeking to raise funds for projects such as affordable housing. This can be seen as both an innovation in the devolved settlement, but also an attempt by the SNP to test market confidence in Scotland (although the bond will of course benefit from the Union). The party has so far been unable to properly address concerns that the financial markets would not look kindly on independence, potentially undermining the new state’s ability to fund its activities.
[See also: Will the SNP ever learn to say no?]
“This will bring Scotland to the attention of investors across the world,” said Yousaf. “And it will raise our profile as a place where investment returns can be made. In doing so, we will show the world not only that we are a country to invest in today. We will also demonstrate the credibility to international markets that we will need when we become an independent country.”
The First Minister has needed to show there is a purpose to his administration beyond simply the retention of power. To this end his speech was littered with commitments to fund new projects. A plan to “anchor a new offshore wind supply chain” will be backed with £500m in funding over five years. There will be a pilot scheme under which domestic abuse survivors leaving their partners will be given £1,000 as part of a £500,000 “fund to leave”. And Yousaf announced an extra £100m in each of the next three years to cut NHS waiting lists. Funding of the arts – a community that has played a major role in supporting the independence campaign – is to be doubled over five years. There is to be a freeze on council tax, which had been expected to rise by double-digit rates. While this will ease the financial pressure on households, it will further punish local authorities that have already been struggling to fund services within existing budgets. And it is yet another piece of SNP centralisation.
In advance of the conference, Yousaf said he wanted the party to decide its new independence policy and then get on with addressing the more day-to-day concerns of voters. On Sunday (15 October) delegates agreed that if the SNP wins a majority of Scottish seats at the next general election it will seek to begin independence negotiations with the UK government – not that anyone expects the prime minister, whoever he is, to agree to any such discussions. However, with the choice made, the party hopes it can now put recent divisions over its key policy behind it.
If the SNP is to fend off an insurgent Scottish Labour, and if Yousaf is to remain leader, he will have to start delivering in areas where voters are losing faith after 16 years of SNP government. He will also have to put in a decent showing at the general election. This conference speech shows that Yousaf intends to fight the whole way.
[See also: How long can Humza Yousaf last?]