THE upcoming SNP spring conference is a bit like spring itself: late and very short. This year’s event is a two-day affair only, to be held on Friday, June 8, and Saturday, June 9, at the cavernous Aberdeen Exhibition and Conference Centre (AECC).

Rumours abound as to why the SNP are meeting long after the other parties. Both the Ruth Davidson Party and Scottish Labour held their jamborees in March. Admittedly, the Corbynistas’ gathering in Dundee is now memorable only for their misspelling of Keir Hardie’s name.

Possibly the SNP are suffering as a result of the happy burden of a huge membership, which circumscribes where and when it can meet. At the start of the year, according to House of Commons figures, the party had 118,200 paying members. That’s only a tad down on the record 120,000 following the independence referendum.

More significantly, it is in spitting distance of the entire Tory UK membership figure, which stands at 124,000. Conservative insiders suggest even that figure is an exaggeration, as ageing Tories succumb to the inevitable. Which means the SNP could soon be the second-largest party in the British Isles, after the Corbynistas, unless footloose Ukippers re-join the mothership.

Spring conferences are not designed for the party faithful. Instead, they provide a handy platform for securing free media attention in the run-up to elections, which usually fall in May (eg last year’s Scottish municipal polls).

But 2018 is unusual north of the Border, with this being the first time in ages that the polling booths are staying shut. After two General Elections, two referendums, a Holyrood contest and a local election in the space of only four years, the Scots electorate (mercifully) is having a year off.

This means the SNP are under no great political pressure to lay on a big spring event. In fact, much of next month’s gathering will be devoted to tidying up constitutional matters and gossiping in the corridors. Which is just as well, because the Aberdeen Exhibition and Conference Centre is more suited to coping with oil valves than human beings.

For unfathomable reasons, the Aberdeen City fathers and mothers banished the AECC to the remote suburbs and compounded the decision by ensuring facilities to eat and drink were kept to a Presbyterian minimum. This may explain why the SNP are rethinking their rules, so they can hold conferences with a smaller number of delegates, which would allow more flexibility in choosing places to meet.

The Aberdeen conference is nevertheless a chance for the party to take stock. While polling data has been sporadic this year – a consequence of the lack of elections – the available evidence shows the SNP remains amazingly popular despite having been in power at Holyrood since 2007. This on the back of practical, centre-left policies allied with taking a strong anti-Tory stance on Brexit and austerity.

The average of opinion polls since last year’s General Election puts the Nats way out in front with 38% of the electorate, Labour on 27% and Tories on 25%. Polls have been consistent over those 12 months, the only real variation a tussle between the Corbynistas and Davidsonites over who comes a bad second.

Conclusion: the political barometer is still set fair for the SNP. Yet this is precisely the moment when a political party should be taking the initiative. In politics, unexpected squalls are the norm. If you are fortunate to have a bit of room for manoeuvre, then use it while you can. Or be prepared to lose it.

What potential squalls are on the horizon? For starters, the SNP do not necessarily have the constitutional ball to themselves. Undoubtedly, the Corbynistas are preparing a radical initiative on UK federalism. Personally, I think they are deeply confused on the issue and can’t distinguish between genuine federalism – which recognises the sovereignty of the constituent states – and enhanced devolution to English metropolitan centres, which knowingly leaves Westminster in overall command. But then, there is a distinct Stalinist streak in the Corbyn high command.

However, the SNP can’t let Labour set the constitutional agenda. The party should be prepared to join a constitutional commission provided everything is on the table, including independence.

Equally, the SNP leadership can’t go on being vague about the next independence referendum. It needs to get the economic engine room running, to show it is serious. For starters, the long-awaited Scottish Growth Commission report needs to be published now – so it can be debated at the spring conference – or it risks obsolescence.

If we are looking towards independence in the short term, it is also important the Scottish Government puts in motion the creation of new national development institutions. These should include a National Infrastructure Company (SNIC) to complement the already announced National Investment Bank, as proposed by Common Weal. There will be a debate on SNIC at the June conference but simply endorsing this good idea is not enough – SNIC needs to be in place in parallel with the new bank. Also, and perhaps most importantly, we need a Scottish Monetary Commission in operation immediately, to lay the groundwork for a separate Scottish currency.

The June conference is normally the point where elected members report back to the members. It would be better in future if reports were less triumphalist and more informative, allowing delegates to ask questions. The Westminster MPs have fought the good fight under difficult odds and deserve the party’s thanks. Equally, the Westminster group have to involve the membership more, especially when it comes to major policy reviews.

I’m not naive enough to imagine detailed policy can be made at membership level. But I’m not the only SNP member concerned that the party’s defence policy seems to be evolving without a proper debate in the grassroots. And evolving in a way may endorse the frigid new Cold War atmosphere being talked up by Trump and the Tories.

Suddenly our defence team is demanding the Tories buy more American Boeing maritime reconnaissance bombers, which are ridiculously over-priced. True, Scotland needs surveillance and fishery protection planes but why not build the versatile (and cheaper) Airbus C295 under licence at Prestwick?

And why are we demanding that the new Nato Atlantic Command HQ (revived from the old Cold War era) be located in Scotland? The SNP need to take the lead in reducing tensions in Europe, not add to them. I suggest party branches ensure defence policy is high on the agenda for the October conference.

The highlight of the spring conference is likely to be the announcement of the new depute leader. I suspect Keith Brown will top the poll, but he has two serious rivals in Julie Hepburn and Chris McEleny.

The existing depute position is a constitutionally vague post, like the US vice-presidency. But the depute hustings have allowed the party to discuss the timing of the next independence referendum while the leadership awaits the outcome of the UK Brexit negotiations.

This upcoming spring conference will be the last at which the SNP top brass can remain silent on the referendum question.

Meantime, as proved by the All Under One Banner march in Glasgow, the SNP rank and file are voting with their feet.