IN those heady few years that followed the independence referendum, we approached SNP conferences like a family bus run to the seaside. Party conferences weren’t supposed to look like this.

Cynical people correctly insisted that behind all the maw-paw-and-the-bairns jollity of these jamborees, a ruthless party machine was grinding away from dawn until dusk, arranging and manipulating agendas and outcomes … just like all other parties.

Yet there seemed to be another dynamic at these big SNP gigs that the others couldn’t match. There were the sheer numbers, for starters. It immediately became clear that the pre-referendum momentum had not disappeared (the fond delusion of the Unionist right); rather it had grown to the extent that record numbers of new members were joining up each day.

As the conference venues each year got bigger, it sometimes seemed that the entire membership base were all present in the main halls and fringe venues. Even the largest location in the country, then Glasgow’s SECC, could have been filled several times over.

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Unable to comprehend the growing popularity of the SNP following a referendum defeat that was supposed to have repelled them, the Unionist commentariat fell back on their default position when confronted by large numbers of ordinary people – they sneered at them.

They were all dismissed as ignorant, single-issue, barely sentient populists whose political consciousness extended no further than waving flags.

Professional politicos always get a bit jumpy when those outside their bubble gather in large numbers and get a bit shouty. They proclaim that politics is an alchemy known only to an elect and gilded few.

If it were to become known that political engagement was for everyone and that many of the “amateurs” turned out to be better informed and more eloquent than those who discussed it for a living, then who knows where it all might end? Best then to portray them as a mob from which no good thing could possibly emerge – or be allowed to.

Sure, the SNP conferences had the same accoutrements and livery that attached themselves to other parties during conference season: the shiny Matalan suits trying to look like something more expensive; the North Face shoulder bags burrowing briskly through the main halls and always in a hurry to be somewhere more important.

There’s the sign language of the Spads – that familiar thumb-and-little-finger to the ear that says: “Talk soon, but don’t count on it”. And, of course, the two smartphones, which can sometimes be three. If you rock up at one of these conferences with only one smartphone, you might as well be dead. Possessing two means you’re in the game, but in recent years, you really need to have three to cut the mustard.

I expect that very soon, if you want to be considered “a person of influence” at these events, you’ll need your own micro-drone so that you’re not missing anything that might be happening elsewhere in the hall while you hold those non-conversational conversations with other Matalan mannequins.

In the space of a minute, these chats will establish who’s ahead in the influence game. To the untrained ear, they are all air-kissing conviviality. Don’t be fooled, for a lot is hanging on their outcomes. They will determine how far either participant has advanced in the wolf-pack and whether or not they risk falling behind and disappearing back into civil service oblivion.

These little chats possess all the civility and affection of two hyenas fighting over the carcass of a water buffalo.

Him: “Angus was on great form last night. I loved that anecdote of his about the orchestra pit in the Viennese opera house. Did you know he’s now learning Mandarin?”

You (panic beginning to gnaw at your innards as you realise you knew nothing of this intimate gathering): “I’d love to have been there, but Humza wanted me to have a wee swatch at tomorrow’s speech. And by the way, guess who’s running for the NEC? Catch-up soon?”

Him: “We must. Not tonight though, I’m attending to Nicola’s bags when she leaves the media party.”

Yet, beyond the roaming bands of party apparatchiks (which each year become more swollen) these SNP conferences once thronged with normal, everyday people with normal, everyday clothes greeting the new friends they’d met in last year’s All Under One Banner march and perhaps venturing to “pop through to Glasgow for the next one”. Their implacable good cheer often threatened even to elicit a smile from us trying to be detached and morose in the press seats.

This will be the first SNP big-ticket, in-person event for three years. Yet those pre-pandemic gatherings seem now to have happened a long, long time ago. In those three years, this party that once revelled in its sense of unity – a come-one-come-all family atmosphere – has fractured, and grievously at that.

In this period, former friends and close allies, people who were once lovers, even, have turned on each other; their relationships poisoned irreparably by the gender issue; the rate of progress to independence and the extent to which someone might still be considered an admirer of former first minister Alex Salmond.

Those foolish, foolish men who championed the Mermaids Charity will still strut around these halls, impervious to the damage and hurt they have caused to many hard-working SNP activists.

Several of those who might once have volunteered here and thronged the stalls have since fled reluctantly to Alba. Those of their friends who have opted to stick it out have been appalled by the onslaught of abuse that several MPs and MSPs have aimed at their old friends. They’ll need to be careful about the company they are seen to be keeping and those whom they choose to follow on social media.

The recent iniquities of the UK Tories – now commonly regarded as a fringe party of far-right desperadoes – will permit the SNP to convey a measure of commonsense probity during this conference.

The Labour Party’s descent into full-on patriotic Union Jack fetishism will add to the sense that only independence can deliver Scotland from this British Empire performance art. And this feeling will carry people along for a little while yet.

You won’t hear much about independence in Aberdeen this weekend or about why the series of independence White Papers appear to have halted at two. Nor will much criticism be permitted about the wisdom of declaring the 2024 UK election to be an independence plebiscite.

The optimism and spirit of kinship which made this all feel different and better is gone. But hey, who cares so long as there are still another couple of election triumphs in the tank?