LAST weekend, I went to my first SNP conference. It was weird. Held online, after an operation to prune anything which might be controversial, almost every resolution on the agenda was unexceptionable. To ensure continuity, the people proposing and seconding resolutions had recorded their speeches in advance. Most of it had all the energy of a late-night talk show on local radio.

The party has more than 400 councillors, 200 branches, 60 MSPs and nearly 50 MPs, but no more than 500 votes were ever cast. The conference was not important enough to need the payroll vote.

It finished with Nicola Sturgeon, the party leader, using her closing address to announce that next spring will be the start of the push for independence and that she wants the referendum to take place by the end of 2023.

Should we even want to believe her? As I write, there is cheering news from an opinion poll showing a substantial lead for Yes. But over the last month, I’ve spoken with several people who are much better informed than me. None are confident that any work has been done to prepare for independence. They do not want to win the vote and then work out what to do next.

INTERACTIVE MAP: What's independence support like in my area?

The First Minister is a cautious politician, who never seems to take a decision without having carefully considered its consequences. She has built her career upon being the best person to achieve Scotland’s independence. Yet, on this vital issue, rumour rushes in to fill the silent void.

Remember that in 2014, there were effectively two campaigns for independence. The official campaign was largely built on the white paper Scotland’s Future, thrown together by a small team of civil servants, working with the First Minister, in a hurry.

Then there was the popular campaign, which was an almost summer-long festival of democracy, engaging with people who were generally uninterested in politics. It was noisy, colourful, radical, and hopeful.

That SNP conference, which could easily have been broadcast in sepia tones from a chapel of rest, was clearly aligned with the official campaign, rather than the popular one.

The party’s leadership has the odd weakness of having benefited hugely from the support garnered by the popular campaign, while still needing to appear as the party of government. Most of the time, that leads it to be tediously efficient, and slightly dull. But from time to time, it must accept the embraces of people for whom independence is a passion, and not a policy.

Most obviously, if somewhat to its surprise, the SNP swept to victory in 56 constituencies in the 2015 General Election. Determinedly managerial in tone during the 2017 campaign, it managed to shed one-third of its 2015 voters, losing 21 seats.

That managerialist tendency has repeatedly led to the SNP’s leadership appearing to want its members to be just another of the many large pressure groups which want access to government. Meeting in conference, the leadership has no problem with members supporting proposals for incremental change, all of which can work well within the devolution framework. In general, that was what happened last weekend

Perhaps, though, it is more than that: the leadership team believes that members’ naïve enthusiasm is embarrassing, and needs to be contained. If that’s the case, party members are like eccentric relatives at a wedding: best avoided, greeted courteously, where necessary, and passed on to someone else as quickly as possible.

That explains the SNP’s enthusiasm for holding meetings online, and for formalising debate. Instead of 3000 activists coursing through the SEC, all the time blethering to each other, raising procedural objections, and managing to be cantankerous and obstreperous, everything can be calm and orderly, and carefully controlled.

That also explains the desire to keep firm control over the outcome of internal elections. There was an interesting one this year, in which Toni Giugliano replaced Chris Hanlon as Policy Development Convener. Hearing the candidates at a hustings, there seemed to be few differences between them. However, where Chris Hanlon wanted to engage members in policy as much as possible, Toni Giugliano believes that it will be possible for the SNP to buy in expertise.

READ MORE: Jacob Rees-Mogg warned as poll shows 55% of Scots want independence

That would usually be a small difference in emphasis. Policy making is always difficult. It takes time. It benefits from widespread discussion. The challenge is almost always to thread a credible path which makes the most of opportunities, while balancing competing objectives, and minimising unpleasant trade-offs so that most people feel that they benefit.

Experts can provide advice. But, as outsiders, they cannot make decisions. The question is whether experts should advise the leadership, using the broader membership as a sounding board for testing proposals, or whether members should obtain direct access to expertise, with the leadership negotiating with the wider party over the nature of policy.

Especially as we look forward to the independence campaign, I have a bias towards involving members as much as possible. This is not a parliamentary election campaign. Independence will involve fundamental matters of identity, and the campaign is likely to engage everyone in Scotland. To rely on one last heave to get us over the line would be rash.

The campaign will need colour, vitality, humour, irreverence, energy, and hope. That will come from the broad Yes campaign, of which the SNP’s membership will be a vital component. You need to trust them, Ms Sturgeon.