The most important party conference ever?

So, we now have a date for what must surely be the most eagerly anticipated SNP Conference in decades. The virtual event is to take place from Saturday 28 November to Monday 30 November. Thus far, that’s all we know. There is no information at all on either the public or members’ pages of the party’s website. Although that is not a place many of us would expect to find relevant or timely information. But that’s another subject. The Conference is scheduled. For the next few weeks talk will be of little else. As is the way with these things, most of that talk will be pish, varying only in concentration and pungency. I shall, as ever, endeavour to keep this site as pish-free as possible.

Party conferences are odd affairs. Part dry, mundane internal business relating to the estimated length of a bit of string with amendments demanding that the party abandon string altogether in favour of a more environmentally friendly option. Part lively (exhausting!) social get-together with much meeting and greeting and – in the old days – hand-shaking and hugging and even, you may be shocked to hear, consumption of alcoholic beverages that occasionally pushes the envelope of what many would regard as ‘drinking responsibly’. Part serious political debate and education at a range of fringe meetings that cover just about any topic you can imagine.

In part, SNP Conference resembles a trade show with huge halls filled with stalls where diverse campaign groups and representative organisations put their ideological wares on display alongside the logo-emblazoned t-shirts and souvenir mugs in the equivalent of the ubiquitous gift shop that you always have to pass through to get out of any major attraction.

Every once in a while there is something that resembles the general public’s idea of a party conference – the plenary sessions and set-piece events which bring upwards of two thousand delegates and visitors and media scavengers together in front of the platform that puts the stage in stage-managed. All coloured lights and huge screens and state-of-the-art sound systems surrounding a rather ordinary ‘top table’ where site all the good and the great and the not-so-great and the yet-to-be-found-out. At a respectful distance from that table but still within range of withering glances and disapproving frowns real or imagined but mostly imagined because they never seem to be picked up by the glassy eyes of the battery of cameras pointing at the platform, there’s The Podium! Gleaming golden yellow and vivid black under the theatre lights and decked out with spindly microphones so as to provide nothing for speakers to hide behind while picking up every um, er and faint sob from the inexperienced speaker as well as every stentorian syllable of perfectly honed rhetoric from the professionals; either medieval torture implement designed to reduced grown men and strong women to wobbly, wordless bags of mumbling mince or launchpad for a sparkling career in politics or anchor that can either secure an established status or drag the unfortunate and the reckless to the depths of ignominy and obscurity – The Podium!

I hear people complain that the Conference is over-controlled and too stage-managed. That would be some of the pish I referred to earlier. How the hell might it be possible to have a three-day event involving maybe five thousand people under the gaze of the world’s media without it being stage-managed and tightly controlled? I have been responsible for organising events that are dwarfed by the SNP Conference and can testify to what a nightmare it can be. The amount of detail that has to be attended to is literally infinite – because there is always someone who will find another detail that because briefly or for far longer than it should be the most important detail in the entire universe upon which hangs not only the success of the event but the lives of everyone involved and the fate of humanity… and then the pills kick in and it’s OK for a while as some semblance of rational perspective returns to tease before the next detail hits. What I’m saying is that it’s not easy. Whatever else may be said about Peter Murrell, he is to be congratulated for the job he does on these big events. I’ve watched him in action. And he is good. He is very good at what he does. Let’s give the man that.

Apart from the heads-up on the pish that will be talked and the undertaking to talk relatively less pish myself, none of the foregoing matters a toss. None of it is relevant. Because the one thing we know for certain about the Conference promised for the end of next month is that it will be absolutely nothing like the Conferences as described. This SNP Conference will be different.

I am confident that, organisationally, it will be fine to excellent. As I said, Peter Murrell and his team are pretty good at this stuff. They will have picked up a lot of direct and indirect experience over the last few months as more and more events went online. They will have access to cutting-edge technology – which may or may not be a comfort. They will put in the hours and the effort – of that we may be certain. It’ll be alright on the night!

It better be! Because this one is crucial. Even if you are inclined to dismiss the SNP Conference as nothing more than a big PR exercise and/or an opportunity for the party leadership to engage and enthuse the membership; even if you have long-since ceased to have any confidence in a connection between what is decided by Conference and what happens in practice; even if you view Conference with the most jaundiced of eyes and an excess of cynicism, you have to allow that this one matters. It is no exaggeration to say that not only the fate of the party and various associated personalities hang on what occurs over those three days at the end of November, so too does the fate of Scotland.

If that sounds portentous to the point of pretension I make no apology. Because I’m not wrong. It is difficult if not impossible to overstate the significance of what is said at and comes out of the 2020 SNP Annual Conference. My concern – would ‘fear’ be too strong a word? – is that the potential for controversy inclines party managers to ‘take precautions’. The kind of ‘precautions’ which may be facilitated by the virtual nature of the event. I have one word of advice to them. DON’T!

The worst thing imaginable is that there should be no controversy. If ever there was a need for matters to be aired and resolved in as far as they might be, it is now. If ever there was a need for the party to be seen to be airing and attempting to resolve these issues, it is now. If ever there was a need for members and non-members alike to come away from the SNP conference with a clear sense of purpose and confidence that what must be done will be done, it is now.

As to what it is that must be done, I’ll leave that for another time. Suffice it to say that I will be doing my utmost to ensure that the appropriate amount of controversy is injected into the SNP Conference next month. To that effect, I shall be plotting and conspiring with others of similar mind. Many others will be similarly plotting and conspiring without my participation. There will be a lot of plotting and conspiring. Still others will be plotting and conspiring to thwart the plotting and conspiring of ‘trouble-makers’. That’s the nature of the beast. But if ever there was a time when the shit-stirrers needed to triumph it is at the 2020 SNP Conference.

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