AT other party conferences, it is a common sight. Whether it be over fox-hunting, Iraq or the NHS, a protest accusing delegates of betraying the public mood is usually present to greet them as they make their way inside. The SNP has rarely had to run such a gauntlet.
This autumn, however, the placards look likely to be out in force.
The conference will play host to a powder keg debate on whether or not to change party policy so that an independent Scotland would remain part of the NATO alliance. Peace campaigners are already planning to ensure that when card-carrying members turn up, they get a noisy welcome.
The reasoning behind the SNP’s policy shift, proposed by the party’s defence spokesman Angus Robertson, has been set out at length. The Moray MP argues that Scotland needs to get on board to show fellow NATO members, like Denmark and Norway, that it can be a good and trustworthy neighbour. So long as NATO agrees that Scotland shouldn’t host nuclear weapons and will only take part in UN-sanctioned operations, it should sign on the dotted line.
For peace campaigners, the problem is that NATO membership would still put Scotland in the role of military aggressor. Opponents also point out the contradiction of the SNP insisting on removing the “obscenity” of nuclear weapons at home, at the same time as it joins a club which, just a few weeks ago, declared it should remain “a nuclear alliance”.
That is the detail. However, the NATO debate within the SNP hits at something much deeper and more personal. The SNP has a self-image rooted in its exceptionalism. It isn’t like other parties. It isn’t, in other words, the kind of party where you turn up, just like at Labour, and find placard-waving peace campaigners accusing you of selling out your principles.
Given this, the ingredients are there for the NATO debate to become a totem for a far wider row within the party over what kind of organisation it wants to be, and what kind of country it wants to give birth to ahead of the referendum in 2014.
Opponents are already casting the issue in these terms. “Don’t start out as a new country already as tainted and cynical as the old ones. Don’t start out fighting wars for American corporations,” writes Robin McAlpine, the director of the Jimmy Reid Foundation. As was reported in The Scotsman yesterday, a significant anti-Nato campaign will get underway at the end of this month determined to ram this message home prior to the Perth conference.
This appeal will hit the hearts of many in the Nationalist movement. Alex Salmond has appealed to those hearts by talking up Scotland as being a “progressive beacon” to the rest of the region. Somehow he must separate out that aim from what his opponents are already terming the “grubby compromise” of the NATO shift.