I’M writing this amid the hurly-burly and rampant enthusiasm of the SNP’s self-styled “campaign conference”. This is taking place in the cavernous shed that is the SECC venue in Glasgow – the “city that voted Yes”, as we are frequently reminded from the platform. It certainly feels like I am in a part of Free Caledonia. But then, this is certainly the largest-ever political conference to be held in Scotland since Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Highlanders occupied Edinburgh. Better still, it could even be the largest-ever party gathering – in terms of official branch delegates – ever seen in the United Kingdom.

When I say hurly-burly, I mean there is a bagpiper playing in my ear. I have decamped to the relative tranquillity of the adjacent hotel only to find a wedding reception in progress. Still, journalistic beggars can’t be choosers. I dipped into the press room – the heart of darkness, in the minds of many delegates – but then dipped out. For starters, the bagpipes make less noise than the average, gossipy press shack. Plus it is always a veritable tip.

I have attended a lot of political conferences in my time – as a party activist or as a working journalist. In recent decades, the form and content of these ritual, tribal gatherings has changed beyond recognition. Once upon a time, regardless of which party we are talking about, the annual shindig was about policy. Cue frequent public scraps over the line to take. The result was passion, tension, drama and even the chance history would be made in front of your eyes.

All that ended in the 1990s, when the mainstream UK parties – New Labour in particular – became control freaks frightened of airing internal ideological differences in front of the television cameras. At the same time, party bosses realised there was a lot of cash to be generated from charging commercial companies for the right to display their PR wares to delegates, elected members and would-be politicians. Suddenly party conferences were transformed into carefully orchestrated media showcases with a bit of money-earning in the background.

The SNP was slow to embrace this aerated model, for the very good reason that it was – and actually still is – the political party mostly controlled by its individual members and branches. You can still feel this in the way delegates treat the party’s High Heid Yins – which is as equals. No-one in the SNP seems particularly reticent to buttonhole a Cabinet secretary or MSP in the conference corridor and raise a policy issue. Or, indeed, demand a “selfie”. In fact, selfies are now de rigour to the point where I saw one MP – Mike Weir – take his own pic while standing at the podium to address conference. As my own election agent keeps telling me, unless it is on Facebook then it didn’t happen.

Nevertheless, SNP conferences have moved in the direction of becoming mass rallies rather than policy-making events. To some degree, that was inevitable and necessary. Deciding detailed economic policy by gladiatorial debate is not that efficient. And faced with a near universally hostile UK media, the party has to choreograph its public message very carefully. It is no accident that this campaign conference lasts two whole days when members are itching to get out knocking on doors. Two days of television coverage is worth its weight in electoral influence. Plus a weekend of carefully timed speeches ensures the SNP it’s the headlines on Saturday, Sunday and Monday.

The only saving grace is that the SNP leadership has some of the best platform turns in politics, so at least one is entertained. Normally the highlight wasis Nicola Sturgeon introducing Alex Salmond – and vice-versa. They could easily make a living doing stand-up comedy or a his-and-hers sitcom. In the new leadership dispensation, Salmond largely confined his appearance at conference to punting his referendum diary. The autumn conference may see his comeback in a new capacity.

THAT is not to say that SNP conferences have become as pale or orchestrated as Labour or Tory ones. The SNP is more of an insurgency that a conventional party, especially since its membership has soared to more than 100,000 in the few months since the referendum. But it is also a party with an amazingand uncanny self-discipline.

My acquaintances in the UK press – clearly flummoxed by the willingness of ordinary Scots to embrace politics in person, rather than be fed pap – have been sidling up to me during conference and asking (“Off the record, George ...”) if the new mass SNP membership will not prove troublesome, sooner or later? Golly, gosh – the hacks really do think that democracy is a dangerous commodity.

The fact is that the party’s self-discipline is exactly that – it comes from the bottom up. It reflects a feeling in the SNP rank and file that they have to be disciplined in the face of unremitting hostility from the British Establishment and its compliant media. This feeling has, if anything, been reinforced by the hysterical headlines directed against the Yes camp during the referendum. But self-discipline should not been mistaken for being supine, and it would be a big mistake for any future SNP leadership to take the membership for granted. On Sunday morning, a proposal to reduce the number of delegates a branch can send to conference was shot down in flames.

Yet whatever tensions are involved in needing to present a televisual face to the outside world, SNP conferences are still fun. This one attracted record numbers because, I think, folk just wanted to celebrate the surge in popular support since the referendum. For many new members, it is the first real chance they have had to see the wider party from the inside. It’s just a pity that the only available venue for such large numbers is industrial in ambience. The SECC was designed as a space for exhibiting, not for listening. The blast of cold air when the outside doors open is of arctic proportions. Lack of lighting or raked seating inside the hall made it anything but comfortable. Still, we felt like pioneers, and pioneers expect a bit of discomfort for the cause.

Some SNP conference traditions die hard. The redoubtable Gerry Fisher was still in attendance. Every year since he first attended conference in 1969, Gerry has been the scourge of the official platform, raising points of order and generally enforcing a rigid sticking to the letter of the party’s standing orders. Is Gerry mellowing? He confided to me that he felt restrained from demanding a proper ballot on some issue or other because the Satanic darkness of the hall made this a liability.

In other ways, traditions are being broken. There are hardly any kilts these days. We were not asked to sing Scots Wha Hae, the usual conference ending. And the London media is less inclined to be condescending. One journalist of my acquaintance, after hearing Nicola’s flawless conferencespeech, even admitted: “I should be impartial, but I’d love to see the SNP abolish the House of Lords.”