2 October 1997 Edition
Scotland: an unwon cause
SNP conference backs a Scottish republic
By David Hewitt
The 63rd annual conference of the Scottish National Party, which ended on Saturday, went some way towards disproving the words of American writer John Steinbeck who wrote in a letter to Mrs John F. Kennedy: "You talked of Scotland as a lost cause and that is not true. Scotland is an unwon cause". If Labour stick to their commitments, the SNP will begin what they believe is the contest that will lead to the reestablishment of a Scottish Parliament, and inevitably, to the end of Britain in only 18 months time.
The conference was seen as significant in the light of the momentuous endorsement of Home Rule in the recent referendum campaign. The scene was set, therefore, for an exercise in back-slapping and lionising of the party leadership, for the role they played in achieving that victory.
However, with an eye to future electoral pacts with the other parties, they decided on a more subdued approach. As so often is the case in the SNP, the activists had a different view.
The issue of the future of the monarchy in an independent Scotland was put on the agenda. SNP policy has been to retain the present monarchy with a drastically reduced role, on the Scandinavian model 'until such time as the people of Scotland decide otherwise'. That was the leadership's attempt to assauge, or thwart, the latent republicanism amongst activists.
It, however, does not answer the constitutional issues as put by Scotsman columnist Ina Bell, a descendent of James Connolly. "Sovereignty, we are told repeatedly, resides with the Scottish people. That claim has guided the entire home-rule movement, and is the basis for the Nationalist argument. Yet it directly contradicts the Westminster doctrine of a sovereign parliament within a constitutional monarchy. If the people really are sovereign there is simply no place, within the political structure, for royalty."
The resolution, which stayed on the agenda despite efforts to 'persuade' the movers to withdraw it, argued that in the first term of office after independence the SNP would hold a referendum on the monarchy. An amendment committed the SNP to campaign for an Elected Head of State. The amendment fell by 208-153 votes, the narrowest margin ever, despite the leadership throwing in its top names including Alex Salmond. Delegates then voted substantially in favour of the resolution.
Predictably, the Press made much of this decision, describing it variously as the first such decision by a mainstream UK Party, or evidence that SNP activists will have to learn the 'new political virtues of compromise and subtlety'. New Labour said that SNP activists were 'uncontrollable', SNP activists were jubilant. Party democracy was enhanced.
The result revealed, on the one hand, a Party driven more by pragmatism than principle, and on the other, one that has a deep vein of radicalism at its core. It also, incidentally, revealed a gender and generational split, with women and younger delegates voting against the monarchy, and the grey men in the leadership seeing that as a diversion and damaging to the cause of independence.
After that debate the rest of the Conference was something of a let down. Although, in his main address to the Conference, Alex Salmond made an impressive speech despite his bloody nose from the rank and file over the monarchy. He invoked Parnell in an attack on Tony Blair: 'No man has a right to say to his country, "Thus far shalt thou go and no further", highlighting the differing views of the Parties on the Scottish Parliament.
Delegates left Rothesay, on the Isle of Bute, filled with optimism, returning to their constituencies to prepare for the challenges ahead, having asserted their primacy, if only briefly, in the Party.