The National:

IT wasn’t the backdrop that the First Minister would have wanted.

Hours before Nicola Sturgeon (virtually) addressed delegates on the final day of SNP conference, she faced questions about Joanna Cherry’s allegations of bullying and harassment from within the party.

She also had to respond to reports about social media comments made by the conference host, Hayley Matthews.

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Add into that the ongoing challenge of dealing with the pandemic and the fierce in-fighting in the SNP that has spilled out into the open in recent months: it’s not an ideal scene-setter for a big speech from a party leader five months away from an election.

She started with a nod to those in her party who worry that the leadership isn’t doing enough to progress plans for a second referendum, seeking to reassure them that independence is still on the agenda: "The SNP is the party of independence." The First Minister also said that the case for independence has never been stronger.

"An independent country, where those of us who live here shape the future and work together to overcome our challenges, will be good for all of us. A country fairer and more equal than it is now will be good for all of us. An economy that provides greater job and income security will be good for all of us." While this was a speech by an SNP leader to SNP members, that’s not the only audience Nicola Sturgeon had to speak to.

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She also had to be mindful of the fact that we are still in the grip of the Coronavirus crisis and to be seen to be putting the constitution above the lives and livelihoods of Scots would damage the trust she has managed to build with non-SNP voters throughout her handling of the pandemic.

She urged her party to "never forget" that "we serve the people, they do not serve us". While there wasn’t any outward sign of the fatigue that Nicola Sturgeon (and all political leaders) must be feeling eight months into the Coronavirus crisis, she mentioned the toll it has taken it had taken on her personally.

"At times I’ve felt completely overwhelmed – as I’m sure many of you have. And I feel a deep sadness for the lives that have been lost. Not a single day passes that I don’t think of families who are grieving.’’ It is those grieving families and the ongoing uncertainty that moulded the direction of her conference address. It changed what would – in ordinary times – have been a barnstorming speech to rally the troops ahead of the Holyrood election.

Instead, we got a more reflective, pared-down Sturgeon who was careful to strike a respectful tone in keeping with the mood of the country.

While she didn’t shy away from mentioning independence, it was framed (wisely, in my view) in the future, not the past. She spoke of the societal inequality that the Coronavirus crisis has highlighted and exacerbated. In this, she pointed out that Scotland needs the powers that come with independence to best recover from this challenging year.

It seems at the moment as though life is both on-hold and passing us by. We still have the same bills to pay and work commitments to fulfil but the real stuff of life – human contact, hugs, family gatherings, spontaneous and unafraid fun – is off the agenda for the time being.

That’s why Nicola Sturgeon’s speech could never have been the rallying cry for indyref2 that some wanted it to be. The First Minister has said before that when it comes to making the case for independence she prefers to show, not tell.

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In closing her speech she made a call for unity. As she did so, she was speaking more as the First Minister of Scotland than SNP leader. Her speech was all the better for it.

"Wherever we come from – and whoever we vote for – we all care for Scotland. So let’s get to it with hope, love and compassion. Let’s continue to support each other through these turbulent times. And then, together, build that better Scotland we know is possible.’’