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Nicola Sturgeon prepares SNP for referendum push as party conference begins

Nicola Sturgeon is set to fire-up the SNP membership for another independence referendum push as the party’s annual conference begins today.

The Nationalists have again chosen to stage their event online instead of meeting in person – despite Labour and the Conservatives opting for traditional large-scale gatherings in September.

It’s been another succesful year for the SNP as it was returned as the largest party at the Holyrood election in May – the fourth Scottish poll in a row it has won.

The First Minister’s approval rating among voters has dropped in the last year but she is still the most popular leader in Scotland by a considerable distance.

But there’s always one subject that dominates SNP conference above all others – independence and how best to achieve it.

Here’s five talking points members will chew over this weekend – even if they’re not mentioned in official speeches.

1) Succession

Nicola Sturgeon is currently the longest serving leader of any of the UK’s big political parties. She’s been at the top of the SNP and the Scottish Government since 2014, winning two Holyrood elections in that time.

How long can she go on? In an interview this week, the First Minister suggested she plans to serve at least the full five-year term of the Scottish Parliament – which would take her up to 2026.

The vast majority of SNP members don’t want Sturgeon to go anywhere, of course. But that doesn’t stop discreet speculation on who will eventually take charge – and what it will mean for the party’s electoral prospects.

2) IndyRef2 timing

The current party line is a second referendum on independence should take place before the end of 2023 – but only if the coronavirus pandemic has ended by then.

That’s an ambitious timescale given the UK Government has shown no indication it is prepared to grant a section 30 order to allow the Scottish Government to hold such a vote.

The Edinburgh Agreement signed by Alex Salmond and David Cameron in October 2012 effectively kicked-off a two-year period of campaigning before the referendum of 2014.

There are already mutterings among some SNP politicians that a referendum in 2023 just isn’t achievable. It’s up to Sturgeon to explain how it can be delivered.

3) Debts and deficit

The scale of government intervention in propping up the UK economy during lockdown has left a sizable bill to be paid. If Scotland were to declare independence in next few years, it would be expected to take on some of that.

Even if independence doesn’t happen, tough spending decisions are likely.

In a BBC interview this week, Sturgeon said: “Every country in the Western world right now has what you just described as a financial gap, a fiscal deficit, and most countries are carrying large debt burdens.

She added: “Whether Scotland becomes independent or not – and if not then it’s in a UK context – there is debt and deficit to be dealt with over the next few years.”

4) North Sea oil

The SNP built much of the economic case for independence on Scotland being a significant producer of oil and gas. But how does the party square that message with the realities of the climate crisis?

Net Zero minister Michael Matheson suggested an independent Scotland would continue to drill for oil – on what scale, it’s not known – as the black stuff is required for a range of vital products, well beyond the petrol required for heavy-polluting cars, vans and lorries.

The North Sea energy sector provides an estimated 100,000 jobs in Scotland – many of them well-paid and highly skilled. The development of wind farms has created precious few in comparison.

It’s not up to the Scottish Government to approve the development of future oil fields. That’s a matter reserved to Westminster.

But there is growing domestic pressure for the SNP to stand firmly in opposition to the proposed Cambo field near Shetlands.

Such a stance worries many in the SNP – particularly those in the north ease where oil and gas jobs tend to be based.

5) Council elections

Another year, another election. Next May will see voters asked to pick their local councillors across 32 council areas.

Historically, turnout at council elections is very low.

The lack of public interest in councils is not helped by a unitary authority system imposed on Scotland by the Tories in the 1990s which no one much likes, but no party seems prepared to change.

But the election still poses some interesting questions. Can the SNP hold on to power in Glasgow?

Susan Aitken took charge in 2017 but has faced a barrage of criticism from opposition parties and unions over issues such as bin collections and library closures.

Separately, SNP strategists will be monitoring the performance of Alex Salmond’s Alba Party.

The breakaway pro-independence movement flopped at the Holyrood election in May – but Alba supporters say they only had two months to prepare.

If Alba fails to return the several councillors it persuaded to defect from the SNP, its future could be bleak.

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