WHAT will the SNP’s 2018 conference be known for?

We all know what the headline was – Nicola Sturgeon talked a lot more about independence (apparently more mentions than the combined total of conference closing speeches in the last two years) – but said further moves must wait until after Britain leaves the EU.

No real surprises there. But surprisingly a disappointed and slightly bored press corps didn’t seem to mind.

READ MORE: Scottish Independence Convention sends open letter to Yes movement

After an astonishingly generous and much-shared tweet: “You don’t need to agree with Nicola Sturgeon’s policies to acknowledge that her speech – and, indeed, her world view – has a coherence to it that’s quite rare in this era of British politics,” Alex Massie wrote in the Spectator. “When you watch Sturgeon talk you know exactly the kind of politics in which she believes and you gain a clear picture of the kind of country she thinks Scotland can – and should – be. This is a rarer gift than you might think.”

On the outcome of a 2021 election, he opined: “If it produces a pro-indyref2 majority elected on a clear promise to hold such a referendum, it is difficult to see how the UK Government could enjoy the kind of moral authority that could prevent another plebiscite.” And on Unionist hopes that a messy Brexit might deter Scots from independence, (a vain hope) “if the alternative is a UK polity equally intent on turning us into a nation of troglodytes the better to further some eccentric definition of sovereignty and “taking back control”.

Well, well. This is a good deal more than faint-hearted praise.

The Guardian too has dropped its occasionally hostile tone – perhaps because Nicola Sturgeon surprised everyone before conference had even begun on The Andrew Marr show where she committed her MPs to vote in favour of a people’s vote in any Commons vote on the issue at Westminster.

It’s interesting to see how this decision has been portrayed as an entirely selfless act in The Guardian’s editorial: “Brexit strengthens the chance of a second independence vote. So a second EU referendum that could block Brexit weakens the chance. On the one hand, Ms Sturgeon wants to protect Scotland from … economic and political disaster. On the other, she is committing the SNP to help save Britain from a Brexit process which might otherwise trigger the separation from Britain that is the party’s prime goal.”

Of course, it’s not quite that simple. As Iain MacWhirter and others have argued, it gets harder to deny Scots a second independence referendum if they support a second crack at Brexit. And at least, the SNP now have “skin in the Brexit game” instead of being relegated to angry Commons bystander status.

The Times had already decided Alex Salmond’s absence was the story of the conference with a leader article which claimed: “A divide is opening between prudent, moderate, nationalists and the radical fringe championed by Mr Salmond. Ms Sturgeon should make it clear which side of that divide she stands on.”

Kenny Farquharson continued the theme as the conference got under way: “In the conference bars and coffee shops, the police investigation into Mr Salmond is regarded with nervousness and a sense of foreboding. One veteran activist said it was like having an unexploded bomb in the room: ‘You don’t know if it will fizzle out or if it will explode.’”

Yet that tension was not really evident at conference. Certainly there is speculation that Salmond is likely to win his legal battle over process with the Scottish Government. And many delegates – including some feminists – seem uneasy about the way he’s been treated. But if Alex was seen as an alternative power source within the party – advocating a quicker path to indyref2 -- that outlook has lost a champion for at least the next six vital months, even if he clears his name.

Indeed as independence blogger James Kelly has observed, the latest upbeat Survation and Panelbase polls (with the SNP 20 points above Labour on the regional list) suggests “the SNP have escaped unscathed from the hysterical reporting of the Alex Salmond story a few weeks ago”.

Of course, some unexpected stories made front-page headlines too. The Herald’s Tom Gordon misconstrued the words of Joanna Cherry QC in a fringe meeting. She said a “democratic event” such as a General Election would be needed to justify indyref2 – he said she claimed Scotland could become independent without another referendum.

READ: Nicola Sturgeon's SNP conference speech in full

Fortunately the party’s Westminster justice spokesperson was able to explain herself on Adam Boulton’s Sky News slot. But not before the story had done the rounds online. Mind you, this could be seen as usefully opening up debate as well as the downside of speaking your mind.

Either way, this really matters.

For me the most impressive aspect of the SNP’s 2018 conference has been the wealth of talent on display, on the podium and in the fringe meeting, with capable men and women shooting from their own particular hips in their own distinctive ways. High time.

Even the professionally curmudgeonly Telegraph columnist Alan Cochrane was heard to praise Mike Russell’s blockbusting speech, obviously written by himself because it contained four literary references. Another hack observed that Russell’s professorial style had the stenographers scratching their heads when he used the word benighted.

Now I’m no great fan of bamboozling folk with obstruse terminology, but Mike Russell’s conference speech was the embodiment of a well-educated Scot in full verbal flight – a heady spectacle delivering a convincing message. Happily the Argyll MSP gets a lot of airtime because he’s also Brexit Minister. But it would be a criminal waste of talent if he were not fielded to make the case for independence. Likewise all the ministers I saw make impressive conference speeches and the MPs, MSPs, Euro MPs and councillors speaking from the conference podium but more usually in fringe meetings, since these have become the substitute for genuine debate on the SNP conference floor.

It’s a crying shame these events – even those discussing Brexit -- were held in tiny rooms, doubtless because of cost. If the SNP is to continue the British political party default of debating nothing in open until policy wonks have formulated preferred outcomes, then at least fringe venues can be cheaper, so the events can be larger and much-needed campaigning and political steam can be released.

Of course some say that will happen at the new assemblies, which will be held as part of the SNP’s new regionalised structure. Others fear this is just another way of ensuring that big controversial topics never appear anywhere near a conference agenda again.

Nonetheless, #SNP18 was far closer to a team effort by the extended party leadership than anything I’ve seen since the days of Alex Salmond – famously more collegiate and happy to delegate than his predecessor. There’s a message for Nicola Sturgeon there -- please keep using this diverse and talented team to front up the independence message.

Apart from anything else, it keeps smart folk engaged. In 2014, the SNP recruited a lot of outspoken, middle-aged professionals as parliamentary candidates – folk accustomed to saying precisely what they think. Their outspoken moments have boosted the fortunes of both the SNP and the cause of independence. Whether it was Mhairi Black’s shocking revelations about hate speech, Ian Blackford’s impromptu walkout, Alyn Smith’s emotional speech in the European Parliament or the many others I have no room to list.

These charismatic folk must be given the room to breathe, disagree, speak out and inspire – not find themselves confined to barracks once conference is past.

It’s hard for a leader to relax and trust lieutenants. But with choppy political waters ahead, it’s also essential to have more than one hand on the tiller.

So if SNP18 leads Nicola Sturgeon to share the limelight more often and more readily, it’ll prove the SNP has become diverse enough to withstand all damage and deliver independence.