Catalonia looms large at Scottish nationalist conference

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Glasgow (AFP)

The crackdown in Catalonia is looming large over the Scottish National Party's autumn conference, where the leadership is under pressure from some members to address Scotland's own independence ambitions.

Scottish independence is not even on the agenda of the conference starting in Glasgow on Sunday after the SNP's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon formally shelved plans until Brexit negotiations advance.

But some party members are disgruntled and an SNP source said he expected an emergency motion on Catalonia, where some leaders are calling for a declaration of independence this week.

"There will be an emergency resolution on the events in Catalonia, which means there will be some opportunity for (Scottish independence) to be mentioned," the source told AFP.

Jim Sillars, a former SNP deputy leader, said it was "a very bad mistake for a party whose raison-d'etre is independence for them to keep it off the agenda".

Former SNP lawmaker Kenny MacAskill told the Herald daily that the crackdown by Spanish police in Catalonia and Britain's failure to condemn it would fuel Scotland's own separatist ambitions.

"For SNP members, the failure of UK parties to properly condemn what happened in Catalonia further justifies the case for Scottish independence," he told the Herald daily.

Sturgeon has voiced concern over the situation in Catalonia but the SNP leadership are not keen to be seen as supporting an independence bid ruled unconstitutional by Spain's government and courts.

- SNP 'has had to reflect' -

The SNP lost an independence referendum in 2014 in which 55 percent voted to remain part of Britain.

But in the aftermath of Britain's vote to leave the European Union last year, Sturgeon argued that another independence referendum was needed as pro-EU Scotland would be dragged out against its will.

Sixty-two percent of Scottish voters opted to stay in the European Union but were outnumbered by English and Welsh voters and the national result was 52 percent in favour of leaving the bloc.

But Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May dented the nationalist advance with her snap general election in June, winning back 12 seats in Scotland for her centre-right unionist party despite a poor result on a national level.

"We have come through a period where there have been a lot of elections and referendums in Scotland," Ian Blackford, the SNP's leader at Westminster, told AFP.

"After the Westminster election, the party has had to reflect a little bit on where we are."

- New referendum 'a possibility' -

A majority of Scottish lawmakers currently favour leaving the United Kingdom, but that proportion could change at the next Scottish parliament election in May 2021 so the clock is ticking for the SNP.

Kirsty Hughes, director of the Scottish Centre on European Relations, told AFP: "The SNP are not going to rule out independence, despite the demands of the opposition".

"Is there a likely timetable in the next one to three years, from the time we leave the EU in March 2019 to the end of the potential two year transition period which takes us to March 2021, when there might be an independence referendum? There is a possibility."

The SNP has accused London of planning a "power grab", particularly over fishing and farming policies which are currently regulated by Brussels but would return to Britain after Brexit.

Despite the potentially damaging implications of Brexit for Scotland, the SNP are moving cautiously after their bruising in the 2014 referendum and 2017 election.

"There is a strong view that if you have a second independence referendum you can't afford to lose it because then it really is over and done with.

"So it will be a balance between deciding what the support looks like for independence in 2019 and 2020, what the support looks like for the 2021 election, where the mood on Brexit has got to, and making a judgement," Hughes said.

"We're already seeing damaging effects of Brexit and if those effects become stronger and clearer, like big name companies moving out of the UK or a potential slowdown in economic growth, it could get even worse."