IT’S SNP conference next weekend. And it seems there’s more competition than ever for positions on the party’s national executive committee. So, lots of choice for delegates then.

But when it comes to debating policy the choice is pretty limited. Gone are individual resolutions from branches. Instead we have six themed policy positions composited from branch submissions which you can either take or leave. Some stuff in there is radical, some isn’t. Some points will make Tories and unionists uneasy but there’s little you could call controversial in the context of an SNP gathering. We can all be confident these policy positions will pass – perhaps even without any opposition at all.

That’s not really what a conference is for. Of course, the aim is unity. But unity through resolving differences, not ignoring or suppressing them. SNP members are united by the over-arching aim of achieving independence. But on how we get there – and what we do with it – there will be differences along the way. And that’s healthy.

In their defence the conference organisers say these are exceptional times. They’re not wrong. Covid has seriously compromised our ability to discuss and organise. Conference is going online, and the technology only allows limited interaction. So, our normal form of debate can’t happen this year.

But we should be clear that this should have currency only for as long as the pandemic prevents us meeting in person.

I know some think disagreement is dangerous. It makes us look weak. Gives our opponents ammunition. Diminishes our standing in the eyes of the electorate. Well, only if it’s badly handled.

Done well, the resolving of differences can be a route to strength. There is no argument that cannot be made stronger by critical examination. Finding flaws in the logic of someone else’s position will often cause them to adjust it. Occasionally this is by finding a middle way. More often it is simply by plugging the gaps in a policy.

Getting people with different views together to argue different approaches allows positions to be tested. This is how ideas develop. This is the dialectical process which has driven human thinking forward for centuries.

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You win some, you lose some. Not all discussions end in compromise. Sometimes people are not convinced of another’s argument. But given the chance to debate it fairly and openly, they will accept being on the losing side. That means they will be more likely to unite around the majority position. That means more people willing and able to campaign for the policy.

This process has been strangled out of other big parties in the name of expediency and public relations. We should ensure it doesn’t happen in the SNP.

We have big decisions ahead. 2021 will be the “right to choose” election. We can take a big step towards independence by demonstrating, overwhelmingly, that the people who live here want that choice.

Johnson’s claims that he will resist another referendum are designed to undermine our confidence and weaken our support. But it is not a forgone conclusion that he can. In large part it depends on the election on May 6. The pressure on Johnson to negotiate a new referendum is directly proportional to the number of SNP votes. Everything must be done to maximise that new mandate.

Whatever happens, we will have to be agile and creative and re-calibrate our plans. For now we should simply state that we will not allow Johnson to frustrate the will of the people.

We also don’t have to answer every question on debt, currency and borders by May. But we will have to before we put forward a revised prospectus for independence in a referendum.

In arriving at those answers we must be seen to allow open, intense and democratic debate in the party. Which brings me to campaign groups. Groups of members who share a policy objective working together should be seen as a help not a hindrance.

I support groups like SNP Socialists and Common Weal not because I want them to take over the SNP but because I think they can offer solutions to many policy challenges we face. Sometimes the left can provide an answer which can command wide support – and sometimes it can’t. Having the discussion is never wasted.

But it all depends on how we conduct ourselves as well. We need to be kind to each other and respect differences. We need to eschew the intolerance that has infused some recent debates. We can build a loyalty-based not on obedience but solidarity. Unity built on a common purpose and strategy rather than alternative views being hidden away.

And in doing that we can inspire the public and engage an active civil society not just in winning independence but using it to change our world.