Leaders of the Scottish National party on Sunday easily fended off a challenge to their strategy for a second independence referendum from SNP members impatient at the lack of progress on the issue amid the UK’s political chaos.
Delegates to the three-day SNP conference in Aberdeen voted overwhelmingly against a highly unusual attempt at its opening session to change its agenda to allow debate on an independence “Plan B”.
Under the proposal, the SNP would treat an election victory for pro-independence parties as a mandate to start negotiating independence with the UK government if Westminster continued to refuse to approve a second Scottish referendum on the issue.
The vote came after SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford told delegates there was no need to change the party’s policy of seeking UK government approval for a referendum under the precedent set by Scotland’s 2014 plebiscite, in which voters chose to stay in the UK by a 55-45 per cent margin.
Mr Blackford cited a new Panelbase poll for The Sunday Times that suggested support for independence had risen to 50 per cent.
“The time to talk of a Plan B is not when Plan A has momentum,” he said. “With rising support for independence and a general election on the horizon, we have that momentum”.
The easy dismissal of the Plan B proposal demonstrates the continuing cohesion of the SNP compared with other major UK parties, despite growing frictions within the Scottish party’s ranks over how to use the opportunity provided by Brexit to push its core independence cause.
Party leaders have in recent days stressed that pushing for a second independence referendum will be the central campaign issue in a UK general election widely expected to be coming soon, and that approval to hold one will be a firm condition of SNP support for any minority Labour government.
Nicola Sturgeon, SNP leader and Scotland’s first minister, said on Sunday that she would submit another request for a referendum before the end of this year.
“I say this to Jeremy Corbyn or any Westminster leader who’s looking to the SNP for support, if you don’t accept Scotland’s right to choose our own future at a time of our own choosing, don’t even bother picking up the phone to me,” Ms Sturgeon told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show on Sunday.
Joanna Cherry QC, the party’s home affairs spokesperson in Westminster, predicted that events in Westminster would bolster the case for independence. “The fog may clear over the next 10 days but in that fog we are looking for the opportunity to get the prize of a second independence referendum.”
Mike Russell, one of the party’s frontbenchers in the Scottish parliament, echoed that sentiment. “The next two weeks will show that Scotland’s future does not lie at Westminster,” he told the conference on Sunday.
Theresa May’s Conservative government in 2017 rebuffed a demand from Ms Sturgeon for a rerun of the 2014 independence vote and prime minister Boris Johnson has made clear he would reject a renewed request.
Labour has been more equivocal. Jeremy Corbyn, UK party leader, said in August that the UK parliament should not seek to block a Scottish independence referendum, but in September said a government he led would not authorise such a vote in its “formative years”.
While some SNP members are impatient, Ms Sturgeon insists that the legality and democratic legitimacy of separation from the UK must be incontestable.
Party discontent may be eased by signs of growing support from Scottish voters. Sunday’s Panelbase poll found that given a choice between a no-deal Brexit and an independent Scotland, 54 per cent backed leaving the UK to 46 per cent opposed.
The poll also found that more Scottish voters believed Scotland would be better off economically as an independent country within the EU rather than staying in the UK after Brexit.