Three questions emerge from SNP conference 2015.
Question one: What is the SNP today?
Answer: Who knows.
The angry and aggrieved are still there; muttering the old prejudices, their faces etched with resentment. A BBC fringe meeting turned ugly, as the Nats’ raw paranoia about the broadcaster spilled out. Elsewhere, Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, a walking press release, went off-message and used a speech on the refugee crisis to denounce “British values”. That got them whipped up into a hollering, foot-stomping frenzy. For all Nicola Sturgeon disavows Scottish exceptionalism, there is nothing as orgasmic for nationalists as being told how much more kind and caring they are than the English.
Around them are newer aspects, some fresh, others weathered by age or circumstance. (As well as a cult of moral superiority, the new SNP is a self-help group for the broken and the left-behind.) There are semi-Trots and ought-to-be-Tories, sincere social democrats and ambitious political climbers, sharp-suited businessmen and cardiganned home economics teachers.
It was the biggest, glossiest, New Labourest conference the SNP has ever had. As delegates railed against corporations from the podium, McDonald’s and INEOS schmoozed MPs from expensive perches in the exhibition hall. Lobbyists brushed up against ancient Bravehearts and an unprecedented contingent of journalists queued with ingénue radicals for overpriced coffee. (Not to be a miserly Jock but six quid for a baguette? Have they not heard about this austerity we’re living through?)
There was a modest victory for the left on land reform and a hint of hope for the right on fracking. But the centre retains its iron grip on proceedings: Independence, at some point. Fighting poverty, costings to come. More “investment”, scant talk of outcomes.
These paradoxes circled each other suspiciously but for now the SNP’s schtick as the insurgent establishment is working. There is, however, a hairline fracture in this otherwise healthy tooth. Run your tongue over the smooth enamel fast enough and you’ll probably miss the flaw but it’s there. The SNP is a coalition of interests but it is a largely unconscious one. The left-wing, post-referendum membership still doesn’t know the right-wing exists; they have swallowed the audacious fiction of the SNP as a reconstituted Labour Party, battling for the egalitarian nirvana certain to ensue after independence.
The cavity will open up when the September 19ers find their way around the standing orders and push to get their people on the key committees. They may behave with faithful obedience now but impatience is a potent force in politics.
Question two: Who is Nicola Sturgeon?
The First Minister must be the most photographed woman in Scotland, half of them taken with her own iPhone. And yet there remains an inscrutability to the selfie queen. She is a woman, a leader, an icon, a figure of devotion gazed upon moonily by her followers like a dazzling chimera of Eva Perón and Princess Diana. (Whenever she takes a stage, I can’t help but hear Wham! in my head. Usually ‘Everything She Wants’ but I suppose her groupies prefer ‘Freedom’.)
Sturgeon is caught betwixt and between. She has seven years’ incumbency as the virtual co-First Minister and a further 12 months running things in her own right. Still, next May she will ask Scotland for the first time to back her as First Minister. That Scotland will do so is beyond doubt but it doesn’t tell us much more about her.
I know I like her. I know she cares. I know there’s something special about her, that shine that attends perhaps one leader in every generation. But try as I might I can’t get any deeper than that. I don’t know who Sturgeon is, what her vision for the country is. I couldn’t define Sturgeonism, if it even exists yet, and other than independence and a bit more compassion, I’m not sure what her philosophy involves.
“Trust us – trust me – to always do the best for you, for your family and for your community,” she told the conference hall, but didn’t expand on who “me” is.
This matters. The polls can’t defy gravity forever and when they do drop, the public will need a clear definition of Sturgeon. Something you can scribble on a Post-it note. If she wasn’t already First Minister, why would you vote for her? Fail to answer this and eventually her opponents, when they get their act together, will do it for her.
If the answer is that she “stands up for Scotland” or is “a safe pair of hands”, fair enough, but I believe there’s more to her. I just can’t tell you what it is yet.
And that brings us to the final interrogative: Why not?
What is the argument against voting SNP? Their record on schools, hospitals and policing is found wanting but there is no opposition worth the name to exploit these failings. Kezia Dugdale is witty and charming and regularly bests Sturgeon at FMQs but she has a long way to go to convince people she’s first ministerial. Her party, shorn of its old hands and rising stars, couldn’t be trusted with the mid-morning coffee run let alone a devolved administration. Ruth Davidson is a significant talent but her continued commitment to the Scottish Tories is starting to look like a care in the community scheme.
As Sturgeon acknowledges, it is not good enough to win on the weakness of her rivals. She has to press a positive case for voting Nationalist next May. This she began to do in Aberdeen by firming up her opposition to a second independence referendum until a sizeable shift in public opinion can be discerned. Instead, the 2016 Holyrood elections will be fought on Sturgeon’s pledge of extra childcare, new NHS treatment centres and a more generous social welfare net. For much of its history the SNP has been an “independence plus” party, the constitution taking pride of place with other policies tacked on. Sturgeon is slowly reshaping it as an “independence too” outfit, where public services, social welfare, and the economy take centre stage but separation is still the long-term goal.
In doing this, she is edging towards an answer to our second question but what the membership will make of it remains to be seen.
Whatever the internal party politics, Sturgeon’s manoeuvres are electorally sound. They force No voters to confront this question: If independence is off the table, what’s stopping you from voting SNP next time? Sturgeon offers strong leadership and has the potential to turn around her party’s domestic policy failings. And imagine the boost to that mission brought by a new voter base who demand that education and the health service be made priorities over the constitution.
Nicola Sturgeon will spend the next six months setting out a case for Unionists to lend their vote to the SNP. It’s not just Nationalists who have questions to answer.