I KNEW this was shaping up to be a different kind of SNP annual conference when the Guardian newspaper asked if they could have a meeting with me. And I don’t mean its hardworking Scottish team of Severin Carrell or uber-blogger Libby Brooks. I suddenly found myself confronted by no less than six Guardian journalists, all with their notebooks out and scribbling away simultaneously.
They included some of the paper’s grandees, such as Martin Kettle and Jonathan Freedland. Was I – a lowly SNP backbencher – really worth this attention? Or was it perhaps the case that the post-referendum political revolution in Scotland had finally persuaded the Guardian that it was actually time its intellectual superstars travelled north of Hadrian’s Wall to find out what was going on? The latter I think. Better late than never, I suppose.
The arrival of the Guardianistas wasn’t the only obvious change visible at this year’s Aberdeen extravaganza. Last year we began to get used to the mega size of SNP conferences, following the massive expansion of party membership in the wake of the referendum. In relative terms, if a UK Unionist party had our numbers, it would be over a million strong. As it is, the only places with facilities big enough to accommodate these enlarged SNP family gatherings are Glasgow and Aberdeen.
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But it wasn’t the sheer physical growth in party and conference numbers that marked out 2015 as being different – it was the arrival in spades of the corporate advertisers and slick PR operations, each one anxious to promote their company’s matchless and selfless commitment to green energy, saving the planet, high wages, gender equality, sustainability, motherhood and apple pie. Heathrow Airport – symbolically? – took over the entire balcony floor above and surrounding the main entrance, in its duel with Gatwick over the right to build extra runway capacity. And for the billions in public subsidy that could likely go with it. Anyone for a Barnett consequential?
Of course, there have always been corporate stands at SNP conferences and the party makes money from hiring out the space. But this year the scale and nature of the corporate presence was different by an order of magnitude. For instance, the US multinationals have arrived in force, including Coca Cola and McDonald’s, the latter making much use of its obvious local ancestry. Though, as far as I know, no one has ever actually traced the precise Caledonian origins of the two brothers who conceived the original hamburger stall in California in the Forties.
Is the corporate take-over of the SNP fringe – once the preserve of worthy social campaigns or branch fundraising – a loss? The change signals we are a power in the land that must be taken seriously. It also suggests that it will be harder for our Unionist opponents to convince the business world (UK or multinational) that the SNP is the spawn of Satan. However, to an old hand such as myself – and I’ve been attending SNP conferences for two decades – something of our soul has been traded for corporate respectability. Call me old-fashioned.
Yet in saying that, more than a few of the attending corporate sponsors made a point to me which is worth recording. Those in the professional business and media circus that does the rounds of the various party conferences prefer coming to the SNP. Why? Because we are still so informal and friendly, despite the growth in the numbers attending. In particular, the SNP conference lacks the intense and irritating airport-style security of the Labour and Tory events. Long may that continue.
Initially, after the great influx of new members following the referendum, I was apprehensive that the old hands and the newbies might find it hard to mix at conference. Given the (welcome) politicisation and radicalisation of the new recruits, there was also the possibility that conference could become factious – never a good idea in front of a largely hostile UK media. Equally – for I am a contradictory soul – I did not relish an annual conference so stage-managed that the new members got bored and left for other political pastures. What pleased me most about Aberdeen 2015 was that the party navigated between these two extremes and came out the other side with a smile on its face.
Okay, the leadership line on land reform was remitted back, but the debate was courteous and well-informed on both sides. What outside critics forget is that the SNP membership honed its forensic debating skills during the independence debate. We discuss among ourselves in order to reach a conclusion and a consensus for action – not to do each other down. The leadership should note this for future reference. Perhaps National Council, our real policy forum, can be allowed a wider remit in the future.
Conferences run on caffeine. Fortunately there were more coffee stands this time round in Aberdeen, thanks to a whole hall being turned into a caravan park for catering franchises – though the smell did penetrate the conference hall at times.
However, at (for instance) £2.50 for a small bottle of water, London prices have arrived at the SNP annual conference. Hope it gets cheaper after independence. That said, downtown Aberdeen is now well-off for decent eating places. I took my incredibly hard-working parliamentary staff out for dinner at the idiosyncratic and excellent Musa.
The downside of the Aberdeen Conference Centre is the paucity of private meeting spaces. Every nook and cranny was being commandeered for discussions and interviews.
I had a scheduled meeting with the First Minister of the Isle of Man, the charming and very knowledgeable Alan Bell, only to discover there was nowhere actually to sit down. Max, my super-efficient French aide, found a hotel restaurant just closing after lunch, so I offered the manager hard cash to lend us an empty table – but no deal.
Fortunately, the First Minister’s entrepreneurial staff fanned out and nabbed a small table in a nearby bar. Diplomatic relations were duly cemented but with assorted civil servants having to stand.
The highlight of conference, as ever, was Nicola’s keynote speech on Saturday afternoon. To appreciate how the leader’s speech goes down, I prefer to sit in the back of the hall with the members rather than in the VIP front row.
There were references in the media to this being a “low key” address but that was not how it was being received where I was sitting. I’m getting a bit too old to bob at every single speechwriter’s mot from the leader, but I had no choice as the folk around me jumped up and down with rapturous applause.
Certainly Nicola’s speech concentrated on bread-and-butter issues rather than grand constitutional themes. But that is the immediate agenda for the 2016 Holyrood election. The Labour Party is in existential crisis, which means Scotland’s educational, health and social future can only be safeguarded from (potentially) a generation of Tory governments at Westminster by an SNP administration at Holyrood. Scotland is safe only in Nicola Sturgeon’s hands. Conference got the message and left ready to start knocking on doors.
PS: My thanks to all the readers of The National who said hello to me at conference. Much appreciated.