Patience and politics are not commonly partnered. But this year’s SNP conference held in Aberdeen demonstrated that the party remains focused on national independence—and willing to bide its time to achieve it.
In both her opening and closing addresses, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon made clear that she wants another referendum, while recognising that the timing of it will be key to its success. As Angus Robertson, the Parliamentary Group Leader in Westminster made clear, the party has studied Quebec closely and appreciates a second defeat would be fatal to the cause. The party leadership remains convinced that many referendum voters were scared into voting “no” by either a biased or uninformed London media, though Robertson did wryly suggest that a second referendum would give the BBC another opportunity to reconsider its coverage of the party.
The ‘arms length’ relationship with Westminster was emphasized with comments from the platform suggesting that Westminster is out of touch – both procedurally and geographically. Promising new MPs Callum McCaig and Dr Philippa Whitford, the respective party Westminster spokespeople for Energy & Climate Change and Health, won over the crowd with quips likening the House of Commons to both a zoo and a place for children. At a fringe event, Hull was spoken of as “down south”, indicating by comparison how very far away Westminster must feel.
However, with the exception of one tense fringe event with the BBC, the conference had a confident, upbeat atmosphere. Speakers were clearly delighted to take the stage of a proper auditorium that seated record numbers of delegates and corporate representatives. But with power comes responsibility and some veterans were overheard grumbling that party MPs were now too busy taking meetings to say hello and chat.
The party is clear, however, that it does not want to “rest on its laurels” and take its current good fortune for granted. Though Labour was castigated by the First Minister for its “disunity” and inefficiency, Angus Robertson declined to berate it at length acknowledging that it would be “cruel”.
In comparison, the party stressed repeatedly that to achieve its overarching goal of independence will require continued tight management. A veteran MP remarked on the difficulty of trying to mentor so many new colleagues given that the party has taken the “quantum leap” from 6 to 60 MPs. One young MP has even allegedly been allocated two minders down in Westminster to ensure that despite her rock star status, her feet remain on the ground.
This conference will be seen as a victory for the party—inspiring and informing their own while demonstrating to Westminster that they have properly arrived. Indeed as First Minister concluded her final speech, a countdown to the 2016 elections flashed on the screen behind her and a pounding instrumental rang out in the hall around her. Delegates patiently queued to exit the auditorium. Whether they can last the distance between now and a second independence referendum remains to be seen.
Jenny Brindisi, Account Director, Public Affairs
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January 21, 2021