SNP leadership tells members Joe Biden victory shows Nicola Sturgeon can get her independence vote

Simon Johnson
Ian Blackford, the SNP's Westminster leader - PA
Ian Blackford, the SNP's Westminster leader - PA

The SNP hierarchy has attempted to appease party members frustrated with Nicola Sturgeon's cautious strategy for getting a second independence referendum by arguing the US presidential election showed she is right.

Mike Russell, the Constitution Secretary, told the SNP conference there was a parallel between Donald Trump's "antidemocratic ravings" following his re-election defeat and Boris Johnson stating he will refuse another independence referendum if the SNP wins next May's Holyrood election.

In a dig at party radicals who want Ms Sturgeon to draw up a 'Plan B' if Mr Johnson refuses to back down, he said Joe Biden had not resorted to "threats or lawsuits" to cement his victory.

Mr Russell said Mr Biden instead relied on a "confident and flawless commitment to the democratic process" and argued this showed Ms Sturgeon would get her referendum with an election victory in May.

He echoed a keynote speech by Ian Blackford, the SNP's Westminster leader, who told the virtual conference: "We only need to look across the Atlantic to see. Democracy deniers are destined for only one thing, defeat.”

Mr Blackford appealed to members to "keep heart, keep the heid and keep faith" with Ms Sturgeon and her strategy as he insisted that Mr Johnson's opposition to another referendum would "crumble under the weight of votes in next year’s Scottish election."

But they were challenged by Joanna Cherry, one of the party's most senior MPs and a close ally of Alex Salmond, who said Ms Sturgeon had to start thinking of an alternative route if the Prime Minister refused to change his mind.

Ms Cherry told the virtual conference that refusing to allow another referendum would be "Trumpian" but added "if ever any United Kingdom Prime Minister was capable of Trumpian behaviour, then it's Boris Johnson."

Angus MacNeil, the Western Isles MP, has argued the SNP should treat May's elections as a "de-facto" separation vote with victory taken as a mandate to start negotiating for Scotland to leave the UK.

The deep split in the party over Ms Sturgeon's referendum blueprint intensified after Ms Cherry suggested on Saturday that the party was becoming a "cult" based around the First Minister.

The MP attacked the leadership's "unhealthy tendency" to shut down debate after the conference committee refused to include in the agenda a motion on a "Plan B" route to independence.

Members instead debated a motion that "independence is about the right of people in Scotland to decide our own future".

It passed by 1,204 votes to 262 but activist Michael Cameron said: "This motion is a poor substitute for proper debate, with nothing in it that can be opposed by any member."

Mr Blackford called for unity between the Salmond and Sturgeon-supporting factions by arguing "there is simply no time for complacency and no time for distraction."   He said: “The Tories are trying to provoke us and their tactics are becoming more desperate by the day, but let me tell you, it won’t work.

"We will remain calm, clear-headed and confident because we are wise enough to know that what ultimately happens to those who rage against democracy."

But Ms Cherry said: "Majority support for devolution in Scotland was ignored by the Tories for more than a decade. That alone should give pause for thought to those who say we don’t need a Plan B."

Comparing the Prime Minister and Mr Trump, the SNP's home affairs spokesman at Westminster said "it makes sense for us to think about what we should if he continues to veto a second referendum.”

Christopher McEleny, a prominent SNP figure and Plan B advocate, said the leadership was "throwing the sink" at arguing they do not need an alternative strategy and asked: "What it there to fear about a debate?"