As Nicola Sturgeon rose to welcome delegates in Aberdeen, the mood in the conference hall was palpably different to the rock star hysteria of her glittering post-referendum gig in Glasgow last November or the giddy anticipation of campaign conference in March.
Even the SNP’s usually belting introductory music had been toned down – all evidence of a newly expanded party that is as serious-minded and strategic as ever.
This was reflected in Sturgeon’s own opening remarks: there would be no second referendum on Scottish independence in the SNP’s manifesto for next May’s Holyrood elections, to do so would be disrespectful to all those who voted no in last September’s referendum, and – while “strong and consistent evidence” of a change in public opinion could alter this position in the future – it is ultimately up to those activists before her in the hall to lead that change.
Explicitly placing responsibility on any supporters who might be grumbling at the prospect of cooling their ardour for independence in the short-term, she told the conference: “What does that mean for us as a party? It means that if we want Scotland to be independent – and we do – then we have to change more minds. We have to build the case and make it even stronger. We have to convince those we didn’t convince last year.”
According to Kathleen Caskie of Women for Independence, one of the most significant activist groups to emerge from the referendum campaign, Sturgeon’s announcement will come as no surprise to the broader yes movement.
“I don’t think anyone involved in the referendum campaign really expected there to be another referendum included in the 2016 manifesto. We haven’t been talking about independence at our meetings this year; we’ve been talking about poverty, or the powers coming under the Smith commission and how we can make them better.”
Taking up Sturgeon’s challenge, Caskie adds: “But we’re still having the conversations with women. We lost the referendum because not enough people believed that we should be independent and we’re still not there yet. So we hope that our anti-poverty and social justice work will persuade more people of the possibilities of being an independent country. We’re in it for the long game.”
Precisely what constitutes a “material change” in circumstance or public opinion remains unclear. After Sturgeon’s address, party sources insisted that a vote to leave the EU against Scotland’s wishes would not be an automatic trigger for another referendum and suggested that opinion polling would offer evidence of alterations in support for independence, although they understandably refused to predict the precise percentages that the first minister has in mind.
It is notable that opportunities to discuss the possible timing of a second vote have been kept to a minimum at SNP conference, even on the fringe, with the only event to directly address the question being cancelled by the Law Society of Scotland earlier this week, citing concerns that its impartiality could be called into question.
Adam Tomkins, professor of public law at Glasgow University, whose damning verdict on the SNP’s record in government is the cover story of this week’s Spectator, believes that the continuing constitutional discussion – which Sturgeon will vainly hope she has parked with her speech on Thursday – can only benefit his own party.
“The more they talk about it, the better it is for the Scottish Conservatives because there are a lot of voters on the centre-right of Scottish politics who voted SNP in the past but will never vote for them again as long as they keep alive the possibility of another referendum,” he said.
Tomkins is likewise dubious about Sturgeon’s appeal for those who voted no to support the SNP in government: “No voters took the SNP at their word that this was a once in a generation vote. But the reason that they keep talking about the constitution is because they don’t want to talk about their record in government because it is dismal.”
This article was written by Libby Brooks Scotland correspondent, for theguardian.com on Thursday 15th October 2015 16.42 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010