UNLESS you’ve got anything more interesting and fulfilling on in the middle of October, like removing wallpaper or counting paper clips, Aberdeen and the SNP conference is the place to be.

In years past this gathering was a vibrant and tousy forum where the foot-soldiers and activists – the people who keep the party’s lights on – had a chance to debate the issues which make the SNP what it is. It was an opportunity to keep the party leadership honest, if you like; to keep them on their toes.

You encountered more emotion at the SNP events than other party conferences because, well … the struggle to make Scotland independent does that to a soul. Now they have become about as vibrant as a weather forecasters’ convention.

This is an event that has become heavily sedated to the point of being comatose. The cabinet secretaries are arranged on stage like nervous parents watching their child in the school play as delegates get up to have their few minutes in the spotlight. Occasionally, there is fun to be had observing the momentary looks of terror flitting across their waxen coupons when a rogue delegate begins to display signs of emotion or frustration at a lack of progress. Out of the corner of your eye you see the party’s Matalan army of advisers fetch pen and paper from their standard-issue duffel bags and begin scribbling notes about the recalcitrant at the microphone: “how the hell did this one get through”?

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This year’s autumn gathering in Aberdeen promises to take torpor to a new level. On the draft schedule there will be debates about slavery (whit?) and, ahem … loot boxes. And of course time will be given to get all virtuous about climate, though how much of this will be devoted to the chronic failure to create many jobs in the green energy sector is another matter. Of Scottish independence you will hear very little. Out of 48 resolutions on the conference agenda, as revealed by The National yesterday, only three mention the I word at all and only in passing. Perhaps the party should be re-named the S(‘)P and you supply a nod or a wink where the N used to be.

There’s always a conference slogan: something forthright-sounding but utterly vapid like “It’s Time for Tea” or “Making the Buses Better”. There’s a lot of “standing up” for things (unless it’s Scottish independence, of course).

This year’s slogan could be “Not Scaring the Horses”.

Inexplicably, a motion drafted by Angus Brendan MacNeil, the Na h-Eileanan an Iar MP, and Inverclyde councillor Chris McEleny setting out an “alternative route” to independence was slapped down by party chiefs. Theirs was a reasonable and well-drafted motion which would have addressed the mounting concern among the party’s wider membership at the absence of anything resembling a plan by the SNP leadership in the event of a no-deal Brexit when the UK leaves the EU on October 31.

The National: SNP councillor Chris McElenySNP councillor Chris McEleny

The motion suggested a road-map for dealing with continuing Westminster intransigence over granting a Section 30 order for a referendum. It simply proposed that in the event of the UK Government failing to grant a Section 30 order for a referendum next year, then the SNP should “consider” a pro-Yes electoral victory at the next election as a mandate for independence outright. The party’s leadership knows that such a motion enjoys a high level of support across all sections of its membership.

Last year I was told by a senior SNP figure at Holyrood that this approach had found favour amongst several members of the cabinet. From a strategic perspective it makes a lot of sense. It would give Scottish Government negotiators a bargaining tool with the UK Government when they next threatened to say “Niet” to a second referendum. At the very least this deserved to be debated from the conference floor.

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THE current SNP leadership has suddenly become paralysed just at the point when something concrete is needed beyond the annual exercise in kicking a referendum down the road. Thus the SNP is planning for a referendum; is on track for one; is laying the groundwork for one or setting out the arguments for one: everything but actually propose a detailed strategy and timeframe. We’ve had a “summer of independence”, a “big conversation” and instructions to “prepare” for independence. The metaphor of the Grand Old Duke of York has often been used, but we’re beyond that now. For we’re now into the territory marked “Taking the Piss”. As one senior SNP figure told me this week: “There isn’t even a campaign for independence. If we crash out of the EU with no deal in October under the premiership of Boris Johnson we should be in a position to respond with something real and viable immediately.”

The paralysis which has gripped the SNP leadership on this reflects something deeply concerning for all those who favour an independent Scotland. I fear it’s evidence of a widening gap between the SNP leadership and the wider membership. Worse still is that a class element has been introduced.

Thus, those who favour the MacNeil/McEleny proposal are dismissed as “populists”, the word favoured by the elites to disparage people who might not have a degree or may be apt to get a bit too emotional about issues. This was evident in the party’s official rebuke to MacNeil and McEleny by Angus MacLeod, the national secretary.

MacLeod’s letter (which I’ve read in full) was insulting, condescending and, in some places, barely literate. Indeed sources close to McEleny doubt if MacLeod even wrote it himself, citing the similar, off-hand manner in which those who had failed to make it on to the candidates’ list for the European elections were told via emails sent by office staff.

I wonder, too, how much the SNP leadership and its battalion of aides have simply become accustomed to the good life in Government: the fat salaries; the generous expenses and all the other material accoutrements that come with wielding power over a long period of time. The SNP have been governing Scotland for 12 years and few would bet against them extending that by at least another 10 years. You can build up a substantial pension pot on a stretch like that and flit backwards and forwards between nice jobs in the private sector and back into the party fold at election times. When you’ve had a decade or so pulling the levers of government you become very attractive to lobbying firms who will reward you handsomely to provide them with a handy guide to influencing policy.

The struggle for the soul of the SNP has traditionally been portrayed as a battle between the fundamentalists and the gradualists. The leadership’s caution, bordering on negligence, has brought a third group into the mix: the glacialists.