If Nicola Sturgeon is not the only star in the nationalist firmament, she remains the only one that can be relied upon to shine brightly. The SNP’s conference in Aberdeen this weekend reminded us of that fact. Angus Robertson commands a measure of respect but not even he would claim to be loved by the party. Nicola Sturgeon hasn’t always been either; she is now. And there was a reason—or, rather, many reasons—why Alex Salmond as denied the chance to address delegates from the conference stage. Yesterday’s man is considered an unfortunate embarrassment these days.
And Sturgeon’s speech began well. ‘Our job is not to talk to each other’ she said. Rather, it was to speak to those Scots—the majority as measured by the 2014 referendum—who are not already within the independence fold. ‘My speech is not aimed at you’ she told delegates before, rather unfortunately, delivering a speech largely aimed at those who already believe in Nicola Sturgeon. In this she was, once again, the mirror image of the Prime Minister who used her speech to the Scottish Conservative conference to reaffirm certain doctrinal fundamentals. Theresa May did so in tolerably fine style but it’s unlikely she convinced many who were not believers before she stood up to speak. Something similar could be said of Sturgeon’s speech yesterday. It was fine, but not fine enough.
Rather, it was stuffed with familiar nationalist bromides: ‘Scotland’s future will be in Scotland’s hands’ and so on. The Poll Tax, naturally, received a mention. ‘Those days are gone’ she told the Prime Minister ‘and they are not coming back’ (a suggestion greeted with one of several standing ovations). Instead, she suggested, it was time for English-based Remainers to come to Scotland. Here they would find a generous welcome and, if Sturgeon has her way, the chance to one day rejoin the EU. In like fashion, EU citizens currently in the UK will be welcome to move to a Scotland preparing for independence. ‘Come and join us’, Sturgeon said.
The news—to the extent there was any—came when she told the UK government that the timing of a second independence referendum is something that she is prepared to discuss. Next week, the Scottish parliament will likely grant her permission to seek a Section 30 order to legitimise a fresh plebiscite. That should be held ‘once the terms of Brexit are clear’ but before it is ‘too late’ to change course. Even then, however, if the Prime Minister wished to discuss timing then ‘within reason, I am happy to have that discussion’. In other words, the band is playing and there’s plenty of room on the dance-floor.
‘No-one owes Scotland a living’, she allowed, but no-one should expect much more detail than that any time soon. The answers to the questions sceptics have will have to wait. There was, then, little in this speech to persuade many people to make the now-fabled ‘journey’ from No to Yes.
But there was no need for such stuff either. This is just the beginning of the beginning of the beginning. We have years more of this stuff, you know, so there’s no need to use up too much ammunition in these early skirmishes.
In any case, Edinburgh and London are not so far apart. Each agrees there will probably have to be a referendum at some point. The precise timing and the other terms and conditions remain to be worked out. I suspect there will be some back-channel (and hence deniable) discussions happening soon.
Overall, however, this had the feel of a conference settling in for the long-haul, not one on the brink of national liberation. With the exception of the great leader’s speech, enthusiasm was kept in check (and not just because enthusiasm can be controversial in Aberdeen). The modern SNP is less colourful than sometimes supposed and, also, more realistic. They may, as a tribe, be confident of eventual victory but they appreciate there is a long, long, way to go.
Here we go. Again.