Kenny MacAskill: A mix of grievance and justification will rally the SNP’s rank and file

Nicola Sturgeon has played to the gallery at past conferences, getting rapturous applause. Picture: AFP/Getty Images)
Nicola Sturgeon has played to the gallery at past conferences, getting rapturous applause. Picture: AFP/Getty Images)
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The SNP gathers on Sunday in better heart than might previously have been anticipated. After all, it’s the first conference for many years following an electoral setback, and the loss of so many party stalwarts was a shock to the system. Mutterings and discontent had started amongst newer members who are not used to reversals, and amidst party stalwarts concerned about future direction. Not just a second independence referendum, but the political positioning of the party was being privately questioned.

However, rumours of the party’s demise are wishful thinking by political opponents. Even after a lacklustre council campaign and the disastrous Westminster election, they remain the largest party at all levels. Not only do they hold the electoral seats – and it’s wins that matter in politics, not glorious defeats – they’ll also fill the seats in the SEC with a turnout that more than matches all other Scottish conferences combined. Whilst the SNP peak of 56 out of 59 seats at Westminster has passed, it was an electoral aberration and they remain the dominant political power.

So, a conference was anticipated where although there would be no overt rebellions on the conference floor, rumblings would be heard from the side-lines. But, as they say, a week’s a long time, and events are what dictates the agenda in politics. Various issues – many beyond Scottish shores – and even the direct input of the party have transformed the mood. Activists will arrive in better heart than might have previously been anticipated.

That said, there are still questions for the party to ponder and answers for the leadership to provide. A clear steer will require to be given on some issues by Nicola Sturgeon, and thinking by the party commence on others. But Sunday will see the faithful come together enthused by some actions and motivated by others. Moreover, through a mixture of grievance and justification, the rank and file will rally behind the leader and the cause.

The Scottish Government announcement on what amounts to a ban on fracking will have enthused many activists who have been clamouring for this measure for some time. It takes the pressure off an administration that had appeared beleaguered at times, as sustained political attacks on public services hit home.

Moreover, the programme for government laid out a few weeks back allows the First Minister to begin to set out her own political agenda rather than implement the one she inherited. Much of the content is long term but it indicates a direction of travel that will excite the rank and file, even if the immediate pressures on health and education remain.

Both the brutal events in Catalonia and the First Minister’s courage in speaking out about unacceptable police brutality and the need to support democracy will have pleased members. There’s a deeply moral streak that runs within the party base, as shown by the longstanding commitment to unilateral nuclear disarmament. Her comments contrast with the shameful silence of the UK government and the ambivalence of the Labour Party.

For SNP members, the failure of UK parties to properly condemn what happened in Catalonia further justifies the case for Scottish independence. It is added to a litany of British foreign policy failures whether in Iraq or Yemen. And although there are future dangers for the SNP in speaking out, it was the right thing to do and will be greatly appreciated by members.

However, perhaps what has been of most benefit to the party leadership has been the continued failure of the opposition. The Liberal Democrat conference passed almost without notice. Labour under a strengthened Jeremy Corbyn had a fine rally in Brighton but north of the Border civil war erupted and both casualties and the smoke of battle will linger for some time. Even the rejuvenated Scottish Tories, fresh from gains in June, have had a disastrous conference. Theresa May is proving to be the most inept political captain in living memory and now faces mutiny aboard, as HMS Brexit confronts the storm.

All that, as well as buying of time for the leadership, gives succour to SNP members. Brexit and the collapse of the pound were claimed to be the price of Scottish independence yet are being paid within the British state. Austerity continues and a lurch to the right has followed. That amalgam of a sense of righteousness and justifiable anger motivates the rank and file. Whatever travails the SNP faces, Britain doesn’t appear so Great, and the cause of Scottish independence hasn’t gone away.

That said, issues still remain for the leadership to address that won’t be without some disquiet, albeit on the margins of the conference floor. In particular, the second referendum needs put to bed. The previous foolhardy setting of a date by the First Minister proved calamitous and was a major part of the electoral reverse for which her former colleagues paid the price. The party is divided between those who wish to play a long game and those who want an immediate rerun of the last one.

Nicola Sturgeon has played to the gallery at past conferences, getting rapturous applause for her verbal lighting of the fiery cross. She’s already partly extinguished it, but will need to further douse it. The priority has to be the immediate actions needed to tackle problems in public services. Some will be aggrieved but the wider party base accepts the need for a secure platform before another attempt is made at independence.

The EU is another area where the current SNP position will need readjustment. Given that a third of SNP members voted for Brexit and the complexities it causes for the case for independence, the undiluted adulation for the EU was out of kilter with the political reality. Condemnation of the EU Commission over Catalonia offers a cover to accept the growing real politik of an arrangement outside it. She has already started the shift in that direction but it’ll move further.

Of course, her speech will extol the cause and berate the opposition as all leader speeches do. But of greater interest will be the subtext and the overdue move from campaigning to governance.