The SNP and Alba conferences are over, so what have we learned?

Amid the speeches and the fringe events, if you listened closely you could hear snatches of an old Irving Berlin number in the air over the past few days of political conferencing.

Between the virtual SNP conference and that of the new Alba Party in Greenock town hall, the refrain went “anything you can do, I can do better, I can do anything better than you” – with a call and response of “no you can’t, yes I can” coming from Scottish nationalists, once comrades -in-arms, but now locked in a woad-stained battle.

From Keith Brown’s plea to members to “reach out” to No voters to Nicola Sturgeon’s referendum-heavy speech, the SNP conference played many of its greatest indy hits over again. Meanwhile members of the Alba Party congregated for their first conference in Greenock, flocking to the sound of Alex Salmond’s cry for freedom.

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Alex Salmond delivers his leaders speech during the first annual conference for the Alba Party at Greenock Town Hall.Alex Salmond delivers his leaders speech during the first annual conference for the Alba Party at Greenock Town Hall.
Alex Salmond delivers his leaders speech during the first annual conference for the Alba Party at Greenock Town Hall.
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So now both conferences are at an end, what have we learned?


The parties may want the same outcome, but their approaches are wildly different. Ms Sturgeon has shifted her stance slightly and is appealing for “co-operation” rather than confrontation with the UK Government in her bid to ensure a second referendum can be held by her promised date of 2023.

She is pinning her hopes on the idea that Boris Johnson will be forced to move his position by the sheer force of democracy and the mandate she says the Scottish people gave her at the May election, when the SNP won a historic fourth term in government.

But there is an undercurrent of a harder-edged challenge from the First Minister.

Work on the “prospectus” or white paper on independence has restarted within the Scottish Government, and she has been clear to state that any vote will be “legal”, which raises the prospect of the whole situation ending up in court – and who knows whether it will be adjudged that such a vote without Westminster approval will indeed be legal.

The Alba Party, however, believe the SNP has been too slow for too long in its demands for independence and called the six years since the referendum “Groundhog Day”.

In his speech, Mr Salmond was scathing, telling delegates: “If you constantly march people up to the top of the hill and then down again, then you end up all singing Rule Britannia.”

Like his former mentee, he is planning his own prospectus too, which will be written and out long before that of Ms Sturgeon. He has pledged 100,000 copies of the Wee Alba Book will be in homes before next year's council elections – written by Robin McAlpine, who was the head of the pro-independence Common Weal think-tank until earlier this year and edited by Stuart Campbell, the controversial blogger.

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While Ms Sturgeon aims for steady progress, or indeed hopes for a general election that might result in a different tenant in No.10, urgency is Alba’s watchword.


The word “economy” appeared just three times in Ms Sturgeon’s speech; once in reference to Covid recovery, once in terms of nature, and the last in relation to Brexit. Yet it is a sound economic offer, which the SNP knows is what will be needed in any referendum campaign in order to shift people from No to Yes.

There was a focus on the impact of Brexit, with the First Minister reiterating her point that it was “imposed on Scotland against our wishes”. Further she warned her members the “damage” of Brexit will be used by Westminster to undermine arguments for independence. There was a nod to the challenges of independence, but these were breezily dismissed.

Ordinary members did spend more time on the issue, however, passing motions encouraging the establishment of a four-day working week in an independent Scotland, the creation of a national energy company (something the government had mooted, but has since dropped) and a national transport company – the latter two tied to meeting climate change targets as well as creating jobs.

Meanwhile in Greenock there was a plan to create a Ferries Scotland body to control the nation’s ferry fleet and create new jobs, while Mr Salmond, who once declared Scotland would be the Saudia Arabia of wind power, waxed lyrical on a Scottish National Renewables Corporation, to ensure the nation had a stake in wealth generation in natural renewable resources.


Both parties laid claim to trying to be more green than the other.

Nearly all fringe events at the SNP conference were climate focused – where members made clear their views that oil and gas extraction in the North Sea had to end.

And of course the party has co-opted the Scottish Greens into government. Ms Sturgeon’s speech did also have one piece of new information – the government will fund a youth climate conference to run alongside COP26. She claimed they were stepping up as the UK Government had decided not to fund the event.

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The Alba Party members, however, were told it was “not by closing down the North Sea, but by forcing investment into carbon capture, clean burn hydrogen and renewables”, which would steer Scotland into greener, richer pastures.

Nuclear weapons

Like independence, both the SNP and Alba have pledged to remove nuclear weapons from Scotland, but again there is sharp divergence.

The SNP passed a motion that agreed the warheads at Faslane be removed within three years of an independent Scotland, while Alba has said transition negotiations in the event of a successful Yes vote in a referendum should include their removal on the very first day.

Ultimately, for both parties and their membership, independence is the name of the game and it will be the constitutional question which will continue to consume Scottish politics for at least the next two years.

Neither party however has any real answer to what it can do in the face of the continual answer of No from No.10.

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