The National:

IN the midst of a pandemic the First Minister had concluded any suggestion of levity in her conference speech would be inappropriate.

So she delivered an entirely sombre one – underlining the capacity of Westminster to destroy social security and social cohesion. Yet enumerating the means that even a devolved administration, rather than an independent one, had utilised to minimise the damage.

Help for rough sleepers, for low-income families, for young people looking for jobs, and employers trying to save businesses. Applauding the extent of the commitment and energy people had brought to devising a homegrown supply line for PPE, building a new hospital from scratch. And, as she has done for nine months, reminding everyone that Covid has presented unique challenges demanding a unique focus.

There was emphasis too on the risks to Holyrood posed by a Westminster which was seeking to undermine even those limited powers the Scottish Parliament enjoys, and from an onrushing Brexit which will deal further blows to a pandemic battered economy.

Despite which, there were welcome announcements of new funds for poorer children and their parents, for modern apprenticeships, and a standalone £500 for full-time adult health and social care workers, (daring the PM to let his chancellor get tax hungry mitts on it.)

We had to wait until almost the end for any steer as to how she thought independence might be brought about. When it came, it told us very little we didn’t already know. The May election would be the means by which “your authority, not anyone else’s” would be given for “a legal independence referendum in the early part of the new parliament”.

You don’t need to be a lexicographer to recognise the wriggle room afforded by the words “legal” and “early part”. Or to wonder what precisely will ensure Westminster is denied any veto.

Earlier in the debate on Scotland’s Place in the World, delegate Michelle Thomson spoke of how a poll of international business folk had revealed their views of Scotland and Scottishness. They mentioned quality and innovation. But also our capacity for “caution” and being “risk averse”.

In many ways these qualities are emblematic of our First Minister. She’s been brave about Covid-related decisions she admitted had cost her difficult days and sleepless nights. Her work rate has been phenomenal, and her communication skills rightly contrasted favourably with him down there.

READ MORE: Nicola Sturgeon: SNP manifesto will contain commitment to independence referendum

She hasn’t been afraid to admit getting things wrong – an unusual virtue in her profession – or to confess to being overwhelmed at times by the terrifying burdens of 2020.

I also believe her instincts about the values an independent Scotland should espouse and enact are sound.

But she embodies, too, these qualities identified by international observers as caution and aversion to risk.

These are admirable at a time of national crisis. I’m not sure they translate equally well to a moment demanding boldness.

Conference PS. You can only suppose the backroom team operating their inaugural digital conference must be either lying down in a darkened room with a wet cloot round their forehead or reaching for a glass or three of the water of life.

But they got there. And a remote conference was way better than none. Just one plea – if they get back on normal stream next time around, please ditch the composite motions; too often an awfy long winded way of saying nothing very specific at all.