Tom Peterkin: The SNP leadership is experienced in boxing clever, but now there’s the prospect of a real sparring match
Today will see something that it feels like we have been denied for a very long time – a good old fashioned punch-up at the SNP conference.
The term punch-up is used metaphorically, of course, because, as Alex Salmond is quick to remind us, no blood has ever been spilt in the pursuit of the Scottish Nationalist cause. That is not to say, however, that the SNP has not experienced a few bruising moments over the years – particularly when it comes to internal arguments about ideology, personalities or policy.
But as the SNP rose to power, all that changed. A formidable party machine has subdued dissent – save perhaps a bit of grumbling from the sidelines.
That strict approach to discipline has covered over most of the fault lines that still exist between the fundamentalists and the gradualists and their differing approaches to independence.
The iron grip has been fostered by strong leadership and a realistic recognition throughout the party that presenting a united front is important to show that the SNP is capable of governing when the prize of an independence referendum is so close.
Strongly expressed differences of opinion have been confined to moral issues such as same-sex marriage rather than party policy.
Today the SNP is miles from the party that John Swinney tried to lead in opposition around a decade ago. And is light years from the party of the early 1980s that saw Salmond expelled as a result of deep differences with the then leader Gordon Wilson.
So against the rather stifling atmosphere of recent conferences where there has been a reluctance to step out of line, the build-up to today’s Nato debate feels quite refreshing.
The idea that SNP MSPs find themselves at loggerheads with the leadership and are prepared to go head-to-head with them over a proposed U-turn on Nato lends a welcome frisson to Perth’s Royal Concert Hall.
Cynics may argue that the leadership’s volte-face is driven by political expediency, but a bit of discussion in whatever form has got to be welcomed and the chatter is that the vote is going to be “tight”.
We can expect a plenty fire and fury as the party defence spokesman Angus Robertson attempts to persuade the party faithful to reverse their long-standing opposition to Nato, a position that has almost been an article of faith for SNP members.
Delegates believe it is important for Robertson to “strike the right tone” when he stands up to speak, if he is to persuade waverers. There does, however, appear to be an assumption that Robertson will win the day.
After all, when it comes down to it the way today’s vote is not just about Nato. It is also about the leadership.
Salmond, Nicola Sturgeon, Robertson et al have staked their reputations on this major policy change. To vote against them, this close to a referendum would be tantamount to an act of party political suicide.
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Monday 20 May 2013
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