IT was just like old times. The Alba Party conference held in Greenock Town Hall at the weekend felt like an SNP conference from 20 years ago. And well it might, given that most of the 600 or so folk attending were likely to have been at SNP conferences in times past.

OK, the Greenock conference was a bit more hand-knitted and accident-prone than your modern SNP rally, but it was more human and enjoyable for that.

You’ll gather I’m an Alba member, but I don’t mean this piece as a political puff. I just want to capture the atmosphere of what is a rare event these days – an actual face-to-face political gathering rather than the clunky, impersonal Zoom meetings that characterise these pandemic times. What a relief to actually meet and talk to folk in person, albeit behind the obligatory surgical mask.

Firstly, the Alba Party conference took place – as SNP gatherings used to – in a small-town venue. My all-time favourite SNP conference was in the 1990s, at Rothesay on wonderful Bute. We shared a riotous weekend with a country music festival, which made for interesting bedfellows.

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But after the SNP’s membership exploded to gargantuan levels after the 2014 referendum, that party’s conferences are now confined to giant, soulless venues at the mega conference centres in Glasgow and Aberdeen. This makes for a football-style event rather than the more intimate conferences of the past where members got to know each other and (just as importantly) their leadership.

I’d canvassed in Greenock donkey’s years ago but forgotten how handsome the town is and how stunning its location between sea and hills. Greenock’s magnificent Town Hall dates from the 1880s and the town’s heyday as a shipbuilding and industrial centre. A Scottish political party should get to know the country that it bids to lead. One way you do that is to hold your conferences in every possible venue.

In fact, Scotland is more a land of small towns than of big cities. I think the diminution of local government powers and financing in recent times has a lot to do with Scottish politics being dominated by professional politicians from the big conurbations. In its small way, Alba is helping redress this anomaly. Incidentally, the party was also able to announce another defection from the SNP – the sitting councillor for Greenock, Jim McEleny.

The Alba conference seemed to replicate a lot of traditions from the old days when the SNP were more a movement than a party of government. SNP gatherings were always a friendly contest between the chair and conference arrangements committee on the one hand, and the legendary Gerry Fisher on the other.

Gerry was a stickler for the party constitution and took the SNP leadership to task for any attempt to bend the rules in favour of the bureaucracy. Gerry also (and rightly) made the life of the conference arrangements committee a misery if it attempted to limit the rights of the grassroots membership.

Fortunately, Alba seem to have found their very own Gerry Fisher in the shape of Haddington’s formidable Morgwn Davies. From the start, Morgwn was at the podium berating the Alba conference committee for various infractions.

One party bigwig delivered a thundering demagogic rebuke to Morgwn, suggesting he should have moved an amendment rather than trying to derail conference with a petition to “remit” a certain motion. Morgwn walked determinedly to the microphone then quietly told conference that he had in fact submitted an amendment, only to have it rejected by the conference committee. Oops!

As this was a first outing – Alba are barely six months old – conference was more celebration than dissent. But that did not prevent some excellent discussion. Big debates on women’s rights and on reforming prostitution laws revealed the party has a formidable group of female activists with its own, wide-ranging agenda.

The Tory raid on female pensions, coupled with more than a decade of austerity policies falling hard on working mothers, has radicalised a generation of women.

The national debate on trans rights – important as it is – has to a degree obscured a deeper radicalisation among women encompassing opposition to the rising tide of violence against females and to hyper-sexual exploitation. If Alba becomes a focus for this radicalisation, it could transform the party’s fortunes.

CONFERENCE had some unscripted high spots. Tommy Sheridan, now an Alba member, popped up to speak on the need to oppose racism and fascism. Jim Sillars addressed a fringe meeting in the old Greenock court room. Fittingly, he spoke from the imposing judge’s bench rather than the dock.

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Jim is still an SNP member but sees his task (rightly) as ensuring the Alba and SNP grassroots go on speaking to each other and marching together for indy. The artist Terry Howson sold her wonderful, quirky (in a good way) postcards of indy leaders. Tim Rideout (another SNP stalwart) manned a stall promoting the creation of a post-independence Scottish currency – already Alba policy. And Nadira Alieva, wife of the imprisoned Scottish journalist Craig Murray, appeared on stage to read out a message from an unbowed Craig.

Conference displayed moments of genuine anger – especially at the decision of the Holyrood corporate body to ask Priti Patel and the Home Office to grant Police Scotland powers to limit public demonstrations at the Scottish Parliament. I predict significant public protests if this comes into effect.

And there were hilarious moments such as the impromptu stand-up routine from Gareth Wardell (aka the blogger Grouse Beater) after he was awarded Alba life membership.

If I was to single out the most meaningful debate, it was the vote to agree that an independent Scotland should have an elected head of state. Some delegates queried the small print – this move comes into effect only after the demise of Mrs Windsor. Nevertheless, Alba are now in essence a republican party.

This creates clear blue water between Alba and the SNP, though I suspect most SNP members are republicans at heart. Can the SNP and Alba find a modus vivendi? If not, the divisions in the indy movement could be used against us in any forthcoming referendum campaign. This was a point laboured by Jim Sillars at his fringe event.

If Alba have a reason to exist, apart from out-lefting the SNP (hardly difficult), then it is to prosecute independence above all else. But how to do that if Boris Johnson and co remain intransigent that they will not sanction an agreed indyref2?

The Alba conference answer is that after the council elections next May, an independence convention should meet comprised of all elected representatives of the Scottish people – MPs, MSPs and councillors. This cross-party body would give legitimacy and democratic authority to a popular campaign for indy.

Initially, I suspect only SNP. Green and Alba elected members would attend but there would be pressure on Labour ones to take part. Such a convention would be in a good place to mount an international campaign to recognise Scotland’s right to self-determination.

I’ve had more political party conferences than hot dinners – at least it feels that way. But the Alba Party conference was both novel and passionate. And that beats Zoom by a long mile.