The aim for the weekend is outrage without obsession
by Marco Biagi
Mayflies are born and die within 24 hours: a life expectancy an SNP conference-related blogpost could look on with envy. By the time you are reading this it’ll probably already be out-of- date. Welcome to the new Scotland.
The old adage that a week is a long time in politics has never felt so true, or so draining. Starting with the Ipsos-MORI poll putting support for independence neck-and- neck with opposition, SNP activists gathering in Aberdeen have been through hope, tantalisation, elation, crushing responsibility, interpersonal connection, loss and finally anger. The five stages of grief have nothing on this febrile broth of raw emotion. And all of this in a week. Now it’s time to explore those feelings in a group environment in front of TV cameras. What could possibly go wrong?
So this SNP Conference will be about independence. Plus ca change you might say. Indeed, to a certain extent every SNP Conference is about independence. An SNP conference without independence would be like a Mass without God. But this is different. A sense of aftermath pervaded after the 2014 defeat – the air now is just as tangible, but the feeling is one of immediacy, seasoned with indignation. There is a visceral air of being amidst a battle between two titanic political forces, each trying to wrestle Scotland out of the other’s grasp.
Panel after panel will be devoted to the referendum question. Talking heads will be in ready supply and not all will be cool ones. But expect perspectives to be surprisingly varied – there are many in the party who remain worried that this is ‘too soon’ and will openly say so.
Amidst the turmoil all eyes will turn to Nicola Sturgeon, still a leader with a devoted following and an unimpeachable reputation with her party. She has quite a task. She needs to strike a note of outrage but avoid a tone of relentless obsession. The major key of the most successful SNP campaigns is always more appealing than the minor key of grievance to the politically disengaged – and yes, contrary to myth Scotland still has plenty of the politically disengaged, especially if the measure of that is whether they support another referendum in the next 18 months.
As a group the disengaged will not watch her signature conference speech with the fanaticism shown by the hardcore who read blogposts like this, but the content the First Minister chooses will be filtered through the usual channels and will help define the image of her campaign in the country.
Theresa May is banking on Scotland being so scunnered with referendums that voters do not care from where their sweet relief comes. Nicola Sturgeon needs to use every media opportunity the weekend affords to bring the public round to her way of seeing the situation – that whatever you think about whether a referendum is a good decision, that decision must lie with Edinburgh, not London.
It’s all a shame really. Outwith the constitutional tangle this conference was shaping up to have one of the more interesting agendas of recent times. As with the Scottish Government’s domestic agenda, it’ll still move forward, it will just be outcompeted for attention by the constitution. The typical motions from various Ministers stating just how excellent the SNP has been are still in there, but others from the grassroots are striking. One asks the party to condemn Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories; another proposes the criminalisation of the purchase of sex. Shrewd observers will watch for these debates and whether the motions pass to fill in the gaps in the still incomplete understanding of this new post-referendum SNP and what those hundred thousand members actually believe. In normal times, either could be the most charged topic of the weekend. These are not normal times. That accolade will probably go to the inevitable emergency debate on the referendum deadlock, which will be being waged not between factions in the hall but between those in Aberdeen and those in Downing Street.
It’s the local government candidates I feel sorry for. Yes, the election that may cement the SNP’s strength in Scottish politics even further. May 4th, in case you’d forgotten. Don’t worry though. After this week people will probably forgive you. Except maybe the candidates.