ON Friday, November 27, on the eve of the SNP conference, I have been asked to deliver the Wales Centre for Governance’s annual lecture. The title I have chosen is Stands Scotland Where It Did? Scotland’s Journey Back To Statehood.

Previous lectures have been delivered by Nicola Sturgeon in 2014 and Tom Devine in 2016. Looking back to what they said then, it has been instructive and inspiring to see how far we have progressed towards our destination in the last few years.

The lecture is a great opportunity to tell an engaged and interested UK-wide audience about the sea change in support for independence as a result of Brexit and the Covid crisis. It is also a chance to talk about our movement’s vision of what an independent Scotland will look like.

As John Major’s intervention this week showed, the momentum towards a second independence referendum feels unstoppable. Senior party members have told us that there is no reason why the second indyref should not be held next year. Accordingly, this conference and the new NEC which it will elect should have a strong focus on our party’s goal of independence. Not just how we win it but what we do with it when we get it.

READ MORE: Alyn Smith accuses Women's Pledge and Common Weal groups of 'crossing a line'

Central to that vision is a desire to create a fairer and more equal society. So, it was disappointing to see one of my colleagues be so critical of two organised democratic groups of SNP activists that exist to promote and further that vision.

The SNP Common Weal Group (CWG) play a leading role within our party in producing detailed research and developing the sort of progressive policies that could transform Scotland. They are pledged to support a Green New Deal, a National Care Service, land reform, public ownership of key utilities and transport services, stronger rights for tenants and local wealth building. These are policies which most SNP members are in tune with and I am proud to support them.

The SNP Women’s Pledge is a group of women within the party who wish to uphold the legal rights of women to privacy, dignity, fairness and safety as currently defined in the Equality Act 2010.

The pledge states that women have the right to discuss policies which affect them without being abused or silenced; the right to maintain their sex-based protections as set out in the Equality Act 2010 including female-only spaces such as changing rooms, hospital wards, sanitary and sleeping accommodation, refuges, hostels and prisons; the right to refuse consent to males in single-sex spaces or males delivering intimate services to females such as washing, dressing or counselling; the right to single-sex sport to ensure fairness and safety at all levels of competition; and the right to organise themselves according to their sex class across a range of cultural, leisure, educational and political activities.

There is nothing in this pledge which does not reflect the current law under the Equality Act. Some of the rights asserted conflict with the ambitions of those in our party who wish to legislate for self-identification of sex, but these are matters which ought to be capable of calm, measured debate. Instead, many of us who have signed this pledge have been abused and vilified by a small but very vocal group some of whom are members of our party and who think that on this issue there should be “no debate”.

It is no accident that there is a close correlation between this group and those who have sought to stifle any debate about a Plan B if the British Government will not deign to grant a Section 30 order.

I believe that their behaviour is symptomatic of an intolerance which is toxic and damaging to our party. Should it be allowed to continue or bleed into the independence debate it could irretrievably damage the cause of independence. Resorting to personal abuse is no substitute for rigorous argument and rebuttal and it is far less effective.

MANY members are rightly concerned that the “no debate” approach has resulted in an NEC dominated by people who are reluctant to question or scrutinise the party’s governance or its strategic direction and that this is not healthy for internal party democracy.

The CWG and the Women’s Pledge have been criticised for drawing up lists of candidates who they recommend for election to the NEC. Interestingly, once more, there is a significant correlation between the two lists, presumably because both groupings espouse open debate.

It has been suggested that such lists or “slates” are not established practice in the SNP. However, this is patently untrue as those who attended conference last year will remember that a list of candidates who had signed another pledge was circulated. So, what is it about these new lists that is so objectionable? Surely all lists should be accorded equal respect or is it that some lists are more equal than others?

I am left with the feeling that those who thought they, and those on their list controlled the debate and the party machine and would continue to do so are threatened by other groupings of activists organising democratically within the party.

But it makes sense, because in a party whose membership runs to six figures, not everyone knows everyone else. So, when delegates to conference are selecting who to vote onto the new NEC it is surely helpful to have an idea of the candidates’ positions on policy and governance. Especially, given the restricted opportunities for candidates to put themselves forward or explain their positions. Democracy is a pretty flawed affair without transparency or accountability.

READ MORE: Joanna Cherry welcomes support for indyref2 Plan B from fellow SNP MP

The party is too big to be compared to a family. Nor will it always be a family affair and we don’t have to listen to daddy. We are all adults capable of forming our own views on matters and there will inevitably be disagreements. It is how these disagreements are conducted and resolved that matters.

Yes, there has been criticism of the NEC and the conference committee, but criticism is not abuse. As one of the most abused female politicians in the country I have a pretty good idea of the difference. Members and branches are perfectly entitled to be annoyed that resolutions on which they had worked hard for months have disappeared into an amorphous mass of composites which don’t seem to move the debate forward terribly far.

Our party and our policies need to be match fit for the endgame in the struggle for our independence. Those who seek to hobble attempts to make sure that happens do not have the party’s best interests at heart. And, those who seek to stifle debate will not be much use to us in the full heat of the Unionist onslaught once the second independence campaign starts for real.

The Wales Centre for Governance annual lecture is free to attend and open to everyone. Register here: www.cardiff.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_i62qBxK_RqCVI2j_Vybx8A