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Swinney offers ‘changed priorities’ as indyref softens

John Swinney at Digital

John Swinney: will list achievements…bar one


Terry smiling headIn his opening address to those attending the SNP’s 83rd annual conference Deputy First Minister John Swinney will run through a list of what the party has achieved. 

He will remind the faithful that in the last six weeks alone it has made a pledge to reform business rates, ban fracking, launch a National Investment Bank and bring a radical approach to education.

It is not a bad run of form, but it may not be enough to satisfy those who believe the party has lost its way. Despite ticking a lot of “things to do” boxes, attention is likely to focus on one glaring omission in Mr Swinney’s list: delivering a second independence referendum.

The party’s call for another referendum has met with firm resistance in Downing Street. A new opinion poll this weekend points to diminishing support for the SNP and the voters at the general election made it clear that they had no appetite for another independence vote.

It is noticeable that in the briefing notes ahead of today’s address he refers to the independence struggle only in passing, and at the end.

Rather than pushing the constitutional issue he will say that the SNP will “address the concerns people care about the most, such as housing, the economy and public services”. An acknowledgement, perhaps, that independence is not the big issue after all, or at least not now, as Prime Minister Theresa May stated.

The party will claim that “social justice” and “equality” are fundamental to its philosophy and to its policy making. Indeed, economists point out that Scotland spends more taxpayers’ money per person on policy areas such as health, education and economic development than the UK average.

Sturgeon pondering

Sturgeon: calls for a shift in focus

Some, however, will argue that the tone of Mr Swinney’s speech indicates a change of priorities. They may go further and say that First Minister Nicola Sturgeon misjudged the mood of the nation and that her party has finally listened to those who demanded it focus on the “day job”.

Senior figures within the party are in sympathy with this point of view and are pushing Ms Sturgeon to make Brexit, fighting austerity and promoting domestic issues her priorities. No less a figure than Ian Blackford, the party’s Westminster leader, said this weekend that setting a target date for a second referendum was “putting the cart before the horse.”

There are whispers that this year’s conference will be the most subdued in recent years after the party lost 21 of the 56 Westminster seats it won in its landslide election in 2015. Those losses included giants such as Alex Salmond and Angus Robertson and some fear their departure symbolises a party past its peak and seeing its authority weaken in favour of a resurgent opposition, both Labour and the Tories.

Even reverting to the “day job” won’t necessarily save the party further erosion in support, unless Ms Sturgeon can find the money to underpin her social agenda, which includes £500m in extra funding for the NHS, higher spending on schools in deprived areas and lifting the 1% cap on public sector pay, estimated to cost a further £400m.

She told me a few weeks ago that, despite the widening deficit in the public finances, she would make “no apology” for a programme that aims to support the vulnerable and less well off.

Of course, someone has to pay for it and business in particular remains concerned that for all its fine words towards supporting growth and investment the SNP continues to see business as a cash cow.

Higher taxes are likely to be on the agenda for the autumn Budget and Derek Mackay’s address to conference on Monday may give us some further pointers about the party’s new priorities.

What he and the party need is a pick up in economic activity. Voters are still swayed by the pound in their pocket and building a strong economy is a prerequisite, not only to winning the case for independence, but proving the country can afford it.

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