The SNP met in unusual circumstances for their 82nd national conference at Glasgow’s SECC. No elections. No referendums. No leadership contests. It all felt very strange. Scotland being knocked out of the World Cup qualifiers didn’t help either. The tone of the conference was quite different compared to recent years too. Flatter, smaller and without the same sense of purpose, it wasn’t until Nicola Sturgeon’s speech at the close of the conference that there was a sense of the old SNP passion.
With Scottish independence bids put on hold, all eyes were instead on Catalonia. The debates that seemed to attract the greatest interest were in relation to Brexit and the role (or non-intervention) of the EU in Catalan independence and at times it felt as though there were as many Catalan banners as there were Saltires bedecking the conference centre.
The SNP membership have always been passionate about their fringe meetings and the opportunity to debate policy and this conference was no exception. Much of the real debate was taking place outside of the auditorium in the fringe events. Ministers looked relaxed and were taking the time as they usually do to engage with the rank and file members – but some seemed almost without purpose and further fuelling speculation of a forthcoming reshuffle.
For the Scottish Government Ministers who were engaged though, here was an opportunity to take the recently published Programme for Government and use the conference as a platform for a re-launch of some of their key policies. Progressive government was the theme, defending Scotland against a harsh Tory Government and a hard Brexit.
John Swinney was first off the mark to make an announcement on Sunday, promising to offer bursaries of £20,000 per person to help attract people switch from business and industry into STEM teaching at Scottish schools. However, it was left to the First Minister to really rally the troops and set out the short-term vision of the SNP. Independence, she was keen to point out, was still, absolutely the SNP’s mission. But she had a range of more pedestrian announcements to make in the meanwhile, from another potential community land acquisition to the first low emission zone and a rural tourism infrastructure fund. Each announcement in turn received a very energetic standing ovation from the SNP followers.
There will be more interest though in Sturgeon’s announcement that the Scottish Government would be creating a new publicly owned energy company. Energy, she said, would be bought wholesale or generated here in Scotland – renewable, of course – and sold to customers as close to cost price as possible. There’s nothing new in this announcement as it was clearly signalled in the energy policy consultation paper, but this was the policy’s first public outing and it was rapturously received in the auditorium. Social justice is the renewed purpose of the SNP – whether that’s enough to enthuse the wider population remains to be seen.