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15 October 2016

The 4 crucial messages in Nicola Sturgeon’s “home rule“ speech

The First Minister wasn't just talking to SNP members.

By Julia Rampen

On Saturday, in the build up to Nicola Sturgeon’s speech, a troop of independence supporters waved saltire flags against the backdrop of the River Clyde, and bought indyref2 t-shirts.

But while Scotland’s First Minister opened the SNP’s party conference by announcing a draft independence referendum bill, she closed it with a unifying message.

Inside the conference hall – where saltires were more likely to be pin-sized – Sturgeon spoke of “Scotland’s home rule journey” and said the “i word” she wanted to talk about was inclusion.

“There is more – much more – that unites us as a country than will ever divide us,” she declared. “Yes voters and No voters. Remainers and Leavers – all of us care deeply and passionately about the future of this nation.”

She also made a pitch to those in the rest of the UK, saying: “We will work with others across the political divide to try to save the UK as a whole from the fate of a hard Brexit.”

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But she said the Tory government had “fallen to the Faragistas” and warned that if it insisted on hard Brexit: “Scotland must have the ability to choose a better future”.

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The speech was both a rallying call to potential allies in the Remain camp, and a negotiating pitch to Theresa May’s Westminster government. Here are some of the most important messages:

1. Scots are doin’ it for themselves

Sturgeon confirmed that Scotland will send a trade representative to Berlin, in addition to the government’s existing representatives Dublin, Brussels and London. She is also establishing a board of trade in the Scottish government. 

The First Minister also made it clear that she is prepared to go against the UK government’s wishes on holding a referendum. She told the audience to have “no doubt” that “I will make sure that Scotland gets that chance”.

The last referendum came about by consensus, but I have heard speakers at fringe meetings float the idea of a Catalonia-style unofficial referendum. The view of conference members is that since Theresa May has described the Brexit vote as a democratic mandate, she would find it hard to discount a vote for independence.

2. It’s not 2014

During the Scottish independence referendum of 2014, much was made of the fact that it was supposed to be a once-in-a-generation decision. Scots who voted No may not like Brexit, but they are also deeply suspicious of the SNP’s motivations for bringing it up again. 

Sturgeon has tried to put a distance between the divisive experience of 2014 and today’s situation. She told members they needed to understand why Scots had wanted to stay in the UK, and said she herself had some insight into their emotions after the upset of Brexit. 

She made her promise of a referendum conditional, saying: “If that moment does arise, it will not be because the 2014 result hasn’t been respected. It will be because the promises made to Scotland in 2014 have been broken.”

Grassroots members – the kind of SNP voters that outrage 2014’s No voters – are planning pro-independence marches, which will stoke the atmosphere in the coming weeks. But interestingly, the vast majority of those I spoke to said they trusted Sturgeon to take the lead.  

3. Don’t wait for Labour

Sturgeon ramped up her bid for Remain voters. While condemning the Tories as “Ukip”, she took aim at Labour’s competence, rather than its policies, in a message that seemed aimed at progressive unionists.

“The SNP isn’t just the real opposition to the Tories at Westminster,” she declared. “The SNP is the only effective opposition to the Tories at Westminster.”

Some who voted No in 2014, she said, might have still believed Labour could take power in Westminster.

If the message that only the SNP could deliver centre-left policies wasn’t clear, Sturgeon drove it home by announcing Finland-style baby boxes, a root and branch review of the care system and a £2bn increase in spending on the NHS over the parliamentary term.

4. Softly she goes

The Scottish government’s draft referendum bill may be making headlines, but as discussed above, the idea of the SNP demanding a second referendum has been anticipated in Scotland for a long time.

What is more notables is that Sturgeon was careful to keep the option of a brokered UK Brexit open. As well as working with other parties, she said the Scottish government will propose new powers to help keep Scotland in the single market. If the Tories rejected these efforts, she argued, then it was time for a referendum.

Her repeated reference to “Scotland’s home rule journey” underlined her gradualist position and her willingness to negotiate. Whether this is a genuine offer or the first step towards the break up of the UK depends on how likely you think a hard Brexit is (the SNP MPs I spoke to sensed a rebellion among moderate Tories). Either way, as the SNP conference closes, the ball is in the Prime Minister’s court.