David Torrance: Otherwise occupied for a date with history

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YOU know a political party has entered the mainstream when a noisy band of protesters targets its spring conference. At Eden Court they were out in force, wind farms being the focus of their anger.

Horns hooted as bemused delegates made their way to the venue, cries of “don’t betray us” ringing in their ears.

There was no sense of betrayal in the hall itself, where the recent unveiling of the referendum date had clearly given delegates plenty to talk about.

Nevertheless, the atmosphere could best be described as muted, although one supposed muted enthusiasm was better than no enthusiasm at all.

Asked that perennial question about the “mood” of conference, officials and elected members dutifully used words such as “euphoric”, “determined” and “wired” (though to what wasn’t clear), but none of those descriptions rang true. Party conferences, of course, take time to warm up, and given the less than spring-like conditions outside, that was easier said than done.

Meanwhile, there were great efforts to emphasise just how historic the occasion was. Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said as much (several times), while the Yes campaign’s Blair Jenkins called it “momentous”. Of course it was all hyperbole; history doesn’t tend to be based on diary dates.

A graphic on the conference platform underlined the point, counting down the 543 days and the hours to referendum day, but delegates were curiously evasive when asked if everything was going to plan. “I’m just focused on a positive campaign,” said one, shiftily. What will the margin of victory be? “I’m not going to make predictions.” Would you bet £50 on a Yes result? Cue shuffling of feet.

But then, contrary to the view of SNP activists as political Stepford Wives, they aren’t stupid. They digest opinion polls and realise SNP and Yes Scotland arguments on independence aren’t yet penetrating beyond the Holyrood bubble. Inevitably there was grumbling about whether the “Yes” campaign was up to the job.

When Yes chairman Dennis Canavan walked on stage, however, the mood lifted. Punchy, sincere and humorous, he also stole the show with a well-crafted line. “Some of the political pundits tells us we have a mountain to climb,” he said. “I like climbing mountains!”

The delegates loved it, while – usefully – it underlined an oft-made point that Yes Scotland is not the SNP, and vice versa. Canavan managed to push all the right buttons, which was curious given he is a recent addition to the pro-independence fold. It was, he added predictably, “historic”.

Compared with Canavan’s injection of optimism, other contributions from the platform fell a little flat. It even made life difficult for the main man, Alex Salmond, whose muted speech simply reinforced an already muted atmosphere. Delegates gave their leader a standing ovation, but it felt dutiful rather than spontaneous.

Beyond the conference hall the chatter was of Europe, for today 15 MEP hopefuls will be whittled down to six prior to ranking by postal ballot. At least internally, this was causing more excitement than referendum dates and platform speeches. The modern SNP, unlike its 1980s’ and 90s’ predecessors, offers numerous opportunities for ambitious young activists.

And there are plenty of them, 25,000 to be precise, for the independence movement continues to buck the trend of declining party membership.

There may be, as Canavan acknowledged, a mountain to climb, but the party has the dedicated foot-soldiers and slick organisation to ensure airy talk of “history” and “momentous” decisions becomes something more concrete.

This conference confirmed, more than anything else, that the SNP is a normal, mainstream political party. And, of course, normal, mainstream political parties can’t be exciting all of the time.

• David Torrance is a political commentator and First Minister Alex Salmond’s biographer