Conference is over. I have that strange mix of feelings which tend to come in the wake of being part of an important event – part sad it’s over; part glad it’s over. Sad because an SNP Conference is an enjoyable and uplifting experience. This is real democracy at work. Especially as much of the last couple of days was taken up with protracted, complex and – let’s face it – dry as dust internal matters.
Which is not to say these matters aren’t important. They most certainly are. The party is currently engaged in a process of internal reorganisation largely aimed at allowing more full and effective participation by all 100,000+ members. Obviously, I can’t go into detail on this. Not only because it is internal party business, but because it would make for the dullest blog in the entire history of blogging. Suffice it to say that, dreadfully dull and confusingly complex as these debates may be, their purpose is worthy and honourable.
There is, I suspect – although to the best of my knowledge this has never been formally studied – a strong correlation between the functional democracy within a political party and that party’s ability to properly serve democracy either in government or opposition. The very fact that the SNP is striving so hard for inclusiveness and engagement within its own structures and processes almost automatically makes it more fit to govern.
The mills of the SNP’s internal reorganisation may grind slowly. But the product will be worth the effort. Of that, I am supremely confident.
Then there’s the social side of things. After the business of the day is done, it’s time to turn to unwind. The evenings spent meeting with friends – old and new – from different parts of the country are as important in their way as anything which goes one at the conference venue.
While I’ve thoroughly enjoyed endless chats with countless folk over beer or a meal, I have to say that the highlight of this weekend’s entertainment was an evening spent in the company of one of Scotland’s brightest talents Alan Bissett. The author, playwright, poet and raconteur put on a specially prepared show in which he performed a selection of his work, including scenes from his plays and readings from his books. And it was wonderful.
Back to the serious business of conference. As well as the discussions on internal reorganisation mentioned above there were the resolutions to be debated – along with all the attendant amendments. This is where the party activists shine as they take to the platform to speak – often with great eloquence and passion – on a range of issues. It is these debates which shape party policy. This is the party talking to the leadership.
Then there’s the set-piece speeches. This is the leadership talking to the party and the public. There were some excellent speeches. There always are. John Swinney spoke with very obvious passion about his aspirations for Scotland’s education system; and just a little pride in the progress which has already been made. Nobody listening could possibly doubt that this is a man who genuinely cares about Scotland’s children and young people. Coming from anyone else, the words “Equal from birth! Equal in life!” might sound like an empty slogan. When John Swinney utters those words there is no mistaking the power of his commitment.
Mike Russell confirmed his role as Scotland’s champion in the battle to save Scotland’s Parliament from the rapacious depredations of ‘One Nation’ British Nationalism. He didn’t quite put it like that. But one gets a distinct sense that he’d like to. His anger at what the UK Government is attempting is every bit as genuine as John Swinney’s commitment to give Scotland a world-class education system. Both make it very clear that they see the Union as both a threat to what we have, and an obstacle to achieving more. Both are quite explicit about their determination to remove that obstacle.
And so to the grand finale. The big one. The Party Leader’s address to Conference. Nicola Sturgeon’s speech. Before commenting on this, it is important to note yet again the fact that the SNP two quite distinct roles. It is both the party of government – the administration, and the political arm of the independence movement. When Nicola Sturgeon speaks, she may do so in her role as First Minister, or as the de facto figurehead of the independence movement. Occasionally, as in her Conference address, she will speak in both roles.
The speech follows a fairly well established format. There are regular components, such as the tribute to the host city and the jokes at the expense of one or more British establishment figures. Generally, however, the speech can be divided into two parts – a listing of the Scottish Government’s achievements and announcement of significant new policy initiatives, and something on the constitutional issue. This reflects the party’s dual role.
In regard to the first, Nicola Sturgeon was superb. It would be surprising if she wasn’t given that she has such strong material to work with. Her administration’s achievements have been little short of miraculous when considered in the context of Westminster austerity and the debilitating constraints of devolution. The announcement too were impressive. The immediate pay rise for NHS Scotland staff being probably the standout example. I would urge you to read the speech in full so as to better appreciate what an excellent job the SNP administration is doing – whatever the media may say to the contrary.
It was when Nicola Sturgeon turned to the matter of independence and a new referendum that things went badly wrong.
Let me make this clear – although my remarks will inevitably be misrepresented regardless of any clarification. Nobody with an ounce of sense anticipated that Nicola Sturgeon would use her conference address to announce the date of a new referendum. That was never going to happen. She is far to astute to squander her options at this stage.
What may of us did hope for was some sense of awareness of the precariousness of Scotland’s situation and the need for urgency in addressing the threat to our Parliament and our democracy. At the very minimum we expected an acknowledgement of the rising power and presence of the Yes movement. We were given neither.
When Nicola Sturgeon said that we should not “focus on the ‘when’ of independence”, that felt like a rebuke to a Yes movement which is increasingly concerned that the the consequences of delaying the referendum are not being recognised or appreciated by the SNP leadership. Those concerns most certainly aren’t being addressed by senior SNP politicians. And those who hoped for better from Nicola Sturgeon must now be feeling extremely disappointed.
Perhaps worse, however, was the disregard – dare I say, disdain – for the Yes movement. In recent weeks there have been massively significant events which have shown how the Yes movement is growing, maturing and becoming more active. The marches in Glasgow and Dumfries, as well as The Gathering in Stirling, are rightly regarded by the wider independence movement as landmark events with great import for the independence cause. People are bound to be perplexed and offended that Nicola Sturgeon chose to ignore them.
It grieves me to say it, but Nicola has made a grave error of judgement. Doubtless, some will say that that she was ill-served by her advisers and speech writer. There is some merit in this argument. I can’t be the only one who cringed at references to “the NHS” rather than ‘NHS Scotland’. But, as Party Leader and First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon is ultimately responsible. The Scottish buck stops with her.
Listening to Nicola Sturgeon’s remarks about the referendum I got a sense of something bordering on complacency. In her failure to give to much as a hat-tip to the Yes movement, for the first time ever I got a disturbingly distinct impression of a political leader detached from the base of that movement.
PS – If you’d like to chat about events at the SNP Conference, I’ll be talking about my impressions and listening to yours at The Bridge Street Social Club on Sunday 10 June from 14:00.
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