SO what did you do last weekend?

Well, I chaired a political conference. And not one of your antiseptic, anti-climatical, virtual efforts, but a real rootin’ tootin’ political conference.

Now, this was a first for me, and it has given me an affinity with chairs everywhere. Chairpersons of the world unite – we have nothing to lose but our motions!

As online trolls never tire of reminding me, I have been in a couple of other parties (they say three – it is actually two) and in both of these I have always had what might be called a speaker’s eye view of the chair.

In my previous political experiences, the chair was the overbearing person (usually a man) who was always attempting to interrupt just when you were getting to your most important point. I was totally wrong and I humbly apologise to all conference chairs from my past.

I realise now that when in the chair you are not trying to interrupt anyone. On the contrary, you are, or rather should be, totally devoted to the success of your speakers, regardless of the point of view they are arguing. Your overriding preoccupation is that everyone makes cracking speeches in reasonable time and that the conference, like Ol’ Man River, just keeps rollin’ along.

The National: FALKIRK, SCOTLAND - APRIL 30: Alex Salmond, leader of the Alba Party, is seen during a campaign event at The Falkirk Wheel on April 30, 2021 in Falkirk, Scotland. Scotland goes to the polls next week, May 05, in the local elections. (Photo by Peter

The last thing you need is the microphone failing, a speaker drying up, the platform collapsing or a video refusing to start. Miraculously, or more accurately thanks to a superb technical team, none of these disasters overwhelmed me in Greenock.

And Greenock is just a fantastic place for a real conference. One of the great traditional town halls of Scotland, it can rock and roll like no bureaucratic conference centre ever can. It favours poetry over prose as a style of delivery. If you can’t speak in Greenock Town Hall then you can’t speak.

And of course there’s the real Greenock people. Conferences are better in towns than cities. It allows the conference into the bricks of the town. There was not a room to be had for love or money in Greenock on either Friday or Saturday night and much-loved town centre cafe, Sally’s, responded by opening their doors for the very first time ever on Sunday. Another first for Alba!

Of course there is the occasional hiccup. And here is the chair’s secret weapon – the element of bluff. If the chair keeps her head then everybody assumes that the delay in the leader materialising to introduce the depute leader was actually planned to milk the applause!

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As far as Alba was concerned I need not have worried. Everyone was as good as gold and the debates were open, boisterous, but exceptionally good-humoured.

We heard from lots of first-time speakers, many of whom were women and young people, who injected a raw, grounded reality into proceedings. Not politicians, but people. And perhaps more importantly than anything else, they were given a platform to air their views and experiences. Debate in Scotland must be stimulated, not stifled.

In the chair you don’t catch every word of the debate. You are too busy calculating how many of the motions on the agenda you can cram in, so as not to disappoint delegates, or why the seconder of the next motion has not put in their speaking card – despite your very explicit instructions at the start of the session.

However, you get the feel of the event, the beating heart of the conference. And Alba’s heart is in excellent shape. The conference was crammed from start to finish with speaking highlights, but there was one section on Saturday afternoon where this chair found it difficult to keep a tear from my een.

Nadira Murray and her elder son delivered a message from Craig from Saughton Prison wishing the conference well. This was followed by the party’s first two honourary members – the famous Grousebeater, Gareth Wardell, and then the unsinkable Moira Brown, who turned in her SNP card after more than 60 years of membership. I have seen some emotionally charged events, but seldom something of this intensity.

You could have heard a pin drop before the rafters were raised in cheers.

Many of the speakers were first-timers – but there was not a single failure. For those from no previous political party they found the whole experience a joy. For those Alba members who were previously SNP, it was a liberation to once again be able to speak your mind out without sanction or disapproval.

As one delegate put it to me, he has left his political party of more than 20 years and then found himself at home.

Now I know that there is more to politics than a successful conference or a vigorous online position. There has to be a real mission and a political vacuum to fill. But there are some things you can determine from a conference. For example, whether there is the calibre of activists to sustain and develop a real political challenge.

In the case of Alba, yes there is, and yes we can.