James Millar: SNP conference will show who is serious in politics
Unlike the other parties, the SNP goes into its party conference united and grown-up.
The SNP looked dog eared in the dog days of summer. The general election result was their most significant reverse for over a decade. Independence, the party’s ultimate aim, keeps slipping further and further from their grasp.
And yet they go into party conference this weekend exceptionally chipper, knowing the only thing that will dampen the mood in Glasgow is when Scotland’s World Cup qualifying campaign inevitably ends in failure on Sunday. (For the record, I hope I’m wrong on that one).
As long as they can avoid the example of the Lib Dems, Labour and Conservative conferences - respectively a sideshow, a freakshow and a shitshow – they’ll emerge from conference season the fittest of the political parties.
The SNP, like the Conservatives, received a mixed message from the electorate at June’s general election. Like the Tories they both won and lost. Both parties have had to ponder how to respond.
On the evidence of the last week the Tories have decided that what the people want is a toxic mix of egotism and ineptitude.
The SNP have taken a different tack. What was clear in June was that many Scots have had finally had enough of constitutional squabbling. Nicola Sturgeon made a rare bungle in calling for a second independence referendum back in the spring. Theresa May’s strong response (remember Theresa May being strong was a thing six months ago) to the First Minister’s demand fuelled the Tory revival north of the border that saw the Conservatives scoop 13 seats including those of SNP Westminster leader Angus Robertson and his predecessor Alex Salmond, or as Ruth Davidson dubbed those two results: “Business and pleasure”.
So Nicola Sturgeon kicked independence down the road and in a recent interview said she doesn’t know when she’ll resurrect the issue (it’s absolutely not a question of ‘if’). And she unveiled an imaginative programme for government proving that being in power for two terms doesn’t necessarily mean intellectual impoverishment.
There was a fair few ifs and wishes in the announcement but Sturgeon and her administration didn’t duck some big issues such as scrapping the public sector pay cap, banning petrol and diesel cars and even looking into a universal basic income.
Not new ideas but undoubtedly big ideas. Yes some of them designed to blunt the Corbyn surge. But that only shows she understood the election result that saw Labour revive in Scotland. (Although since then Scottish Labour has again left the field with Kezia Dugdale quitting the leadership for love triggering a leadership battle between Richard Leonard and Anas Sarwar that’s increasingly unseemly even though left wing Leonard has already all but won thanks to the now normal Labour practise of signing up lots of union members on the cheap.)
And while the programme for government was broadly welcomed at the time it’s reputation has improved through conference season. Because every other party has failed to get their act together at their annual get together.
The Lib Dems barely dented the news agenda. Labour had a jolly time by the seaside in Brighton but a party congratulating itself on losing a general election made for an odd spectacle. And the Tories time together ended with Theresa May being handed her P45 and looking to cough lozenges for salvation as the conference set literally collapsed around her. Metaphors were as redundant as she is surely soon to be.
Step up the SNP. One party source said the aim of the next few days is to look “competent, united and ambitious.” That should be the bare minimum for a political party yet the others all failed on one or more count.
The SNP will succeed. They don’t squabble, at least not in public. Critics call it stifling debate. Others see a party that is just sensible and civil. Which shouldn’t make it unusual but does.
They are serious. While Labour got in a tizzy over talking about Brexit in Brighton item number one on the SNP conference agenda is a Brexit debate. There’s no Boris Johnson character looking to upend the apple cart and spray cider over the stage management.
And Nats are normal. Despite the characterisation by sections of the largely unionist commentariat in Scotland of SNP supporters as boggle eyed obsessives such people are hard to find. Heaven help the organisers of the public sector pensions fringe scheduled for 5.30 on Sunday, all the delegates will be off watching the big match between Scotland and Slovenia. Like normal people would.
Parliament will return next week to tackle the mountain of Brexit work necessary in the next 18 months. The two main parties are hopelessly divided on the issue, riven by policy divisions and personal feuds.
The third party is united, grown up, and able to get together for a few days without being rude about each other. It won’t just be Scottish voters who’ll be turning admiring eyes to the SNP benches as parliament returns to work.
Picture by: Andrew Milligan/PA Archive/PA Images.