From every beam of every ceiling in Glasgow’s SECC droops the same giant banner: ‘HOPE’, styled in Nationalist yellow and black.
From a distance, it looks like a motivational talk has got out of hand and staged a military coup.
Underneath, SNP members trudge in dismay from conference halls to party tat stalls. Their only hope is that a spontaneous debate on the constitution breaks out at some point, for the national question has been assiduously kept off the agenda. You can’t talk about independence in here. This is the SNP conference.
To make up for it, party bosses had splashed some cash on a giant light box spelling ‘SNP’. Stretching from one end of the stage to the other, the display splurged out digital bursts of colour in all directions. It was like viewing a Jackson Pollock painting while someone bellows ‘RUTH DAVIDSON!’ and ‘SCOTLAND!’ at you at random intervals.
And who to kick off this dazzling spectacle? Why, Ian Blackford, leader of the long-since forgotten Westminster SNP group. As warm-up acts go, he is more of a toaster than a boiling pot.
Still, he managed to make the Brexit/breakfast flub now mandatory at party conferences, when he told the hall: ‘The people of Scotland didn’t vote for breakfast.’ The hordes of hungover delegates queuing for restorative bacon butties a few hours earlier told a different story.
Blackford was here for two important purposes: 1) To remind everyone he still exists, and 2) To inveigh against the Tories for taking us to the brink of a ‘blind Brexit’. Very ableist language, if you ask me.
‘Scotland will not be treated as a second-class nation,’ Blackford fumed — and that is how he speaks, like a stubby little chimney belching out smoke from all the straw men he was setting fire to.
That got them perked up. Nationalists are yoked to the notion that they are an oppressed people. One day, they tell themselves, Scotland will break free from the heavy shackles of being the second-highest subsidised part of the UK.
Blackford glowered at an invisible foe: ‘We will not sit back and allow Scotland to be dragged out of the single market and customs union against its will.’ Nae fear. Just four years ago, the SNP led the campaign to drag us out of Europe.
By now, his jowls were skelped-red with theatrical rage. ‘I put the Prime Minister on notice here today,’ he chuffed away, under the somewhat optimistic impression Theresa May could point him out at a bus stop, ‘we will not support any deal that threatens Scottish jobs and living standards’. Yowsers. Not only had they kept independence off the agenda, now they were ditching it altogether.
But no, in the sunny fantasia of Natland, only breaking away from the European single market is parochial madness. Breaking away from the UK single market is bold internationalism. We’ll all end up impoverished but it’ll be a progressive poorhouse.
My attention began to flag and Derek Mackay, chairing the proceedings, looked like he wanted to smash his head into the light display. Ever the showman, he clapped dutifully — this not being Manchester University, jazz hands are still optional — but there was a sliver of a wince when Blackford damned the Tories’ ‘reckless mission to trash our economy’. Derek had been working twice as hard on the same mission but there wasn’t a word of credit from his Westminster colleague.
As Blackford puffed away, full sentences gave way to grunting maledictions roughly linked by the occasional verb. He claimed the SNP was the only effective Scottish opposition to the Tories in Westminster, unfairly overlooking Ross Thomson’s regular contributions.
Nearing combustion point, he billowed: ‘SNP MPs will not hesitate in causing maximum disruption to this Tory Government’s agenda.’ We all remember the day the Nationalists stormed out of Prime Minister’s Questions and that was the last we heard of that Brexit business.
The longer Blackford gripped the podium, the more I wondered if the Nats had employed the same sign-maker as Theresa May did last year. A placard in front of him read ‘HOPE’. The letters ‘LESS’ had obviously fallen off.
His speech didn’t really end; it just fizzled out and, mercy there was great and grace was free, he barrelled off the stage and the screen behind him tried to give everyone epileptic seizures again.
Mackay, startled, as if someone had just poked him in the ribs, stammered: ‘Thank you for that… eh… rousing contribution’.
Far more entertaining was the Nats’ Brussels warrior Alyn Smith, who strived to convince delegates that the battle to stop Brexit was not over.
‘I rule nothing out, up to and including alien invasion,’ he chirped, adding dryly: ‘Though, you do look at Jacob Rees-Mogg and perhaps the Body Snatchers are already here.’
Stewart Stevenson, who is almost certainly mad but very entertaining with it, popped up in a debate on climate change to praise the Scottish Government’s target of cutting emissions by 90 per cent by the middle of the century.
‘I will be 104 years old in 2050,’ he arched an eyebrow, ‘and I expect to be here to hold everyone to account.’
Railing against the US approach to global warming, Stevenson hollered: ‘Are you listening Mr Trump?’
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