SNP leadership crush conference rebellion on “plan B” for independence

Calls to push ahead with independence negotiations without a referendum were overwhelmingly rejected, in a coup for Nicola Sturgeon.

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The SNP’s annual conference in Aberdeen has kicked off not with a rebellion but the resounding defeat of one, after a call for delegates to vote on a “plan B” for securing independence was overwhelmingly rejected in a floor vote. 

Chris McEleny, a member of the party’s ruling national executive committee and its leader on Inverclyde Council, had proposed that a debate and vote on an alternative to the second independence referendum favoured by Nicola Sturgeon be added to the conference agenda. As far as McEleney and other internal opponents of Sturgeon's gradualist approach are concerned, the SNP leadership is on a hiding to nothing. 

They believe that any further request to Westminster for a referendum - which, the First Minister told this morning's Andrew Marr Show, is coming in "a matter of weeks" - is doomed to be rejected. Nor are they convinced that further Holyrood majorities for pro-independence parties will change that dynamic, at least as long as the Conservatives are in office. 

Instead, to boos from some delegates, McEleny called for his back-up plan - for an SNP government able to rely on a majority of pro-independence votes after the next Holyrood election to immediately begin independence negotiations without a new plebiscite - to be added to the conference agenda. A handful of MSPs and MPs agree with him.

Their argument is borne of the sort of impatient distrust in Westminster that another dissenter, veteran activist Gerry Fisher, also articulated on the conference stage - contending that no UK government could ever be trusted to deliver independence, and that the leadership was making a major strategic error in placing its faith in a constitutional process refereed by a Conservative prime minister. It isn't a new divide - the battle between fundamentalism and gradualism is as old as the party itself.

Polling on the eve of today’s conference suggested that such a message might be well-received - eight out of 10 SNP voters are in favour of the party setting out a plan B for winning independence in the event it cannot get a referendum. But in the event, only around 20 delegates out of more than a thousand in the hall voted to add a debate to the agenda. 

Why? It has much to do with the leadership’s message discipline: both Sturgeon and Ian Blackford, the SNP’s Westminster leader, used their first public appearances of conference to undermine critics of their position. They contend that plan A is working. Sturgeon’s Marr interview - in which she promised speedy movement towards a referendum - and Blackford’s opening speech, in which he insisted that a new referendum was the only legitimate means of securing separation, left delegates in no doubt as to the leadership’s position or its merits.

As their Labour and Liberal Democrat counterparts did when asked to judge the political wisdom of their leadership’s Brexit policies, most SNP delegates chose to trust Sturgeon. While that doesn’t change the fact of her party’s internal divisions on independence, it does show that, for now, they are under her control.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.