Derek Mackay delivers his first leader’s speech

This afternoon, Nicola Sturgeon will take to the stage in Aberdeen and deliver the second leader’s speech of SNP conference.

The second, because no one who turned up for Derek Mackay’s address yesterday was in any doubt: this was a leadership pitch near-shameless in its blatancy. 

It was a speech perfectly calibrated to push members’ buttons, subtly highlight Sturgeon’s shortcomings and offer him as the obvious successor. 

Hark this, for instance: ‘I’ve always believed in Scotland and our immense potential, but now even more people share that view that the UK is broken, and independence is the way forward. We have to build on that momentum. The job is not done, but victory is within our grasp.’ 

There’s the sunny, American our-best-days-lie-ahead shtick. The future path plotted and the prize at the end of it. And there’s that curious ‘the job is not done’. Of course, if the job is not done, that means someone didn’t do it. Whomever could he be referring to? 

Those who know Mackay’s public speaking only from his early ministerial forays at Holyrood, where his nerves got the better of him, would be surprised to see him address SNP conference.

Here he is among friends and he holds the room with a deliberate tone and some bon-bons of wit scattered along the way to keep the audience sweet.

It was not merely a speech about his Cabinet brief of finance. We heard about tackling climate change, reducing child poverty, ‘the absurdity of nuclear weapons‘, and, of course, independence. ‘Scotland cannot afford the union,’ he purred, absurdly, ‘but it can more than afford to be independent.’

This was the kind of speech Sturgeon used to give when she was deputy: straying far beyond her immediate remit and giving an overall picture of what the government was doing and ought to be doing. It was the speech of a First Minister tentatively setting out her vision — and her stall. 

So too with Mackay. His words were what the assembled faithful wanted to hear and they rewarded him with generous applause. Job well done, heir apparent. 

Guest speaker Delyth Jewell was up from Plaid Cymru. They were marching for Welsh independence, she chirped, ‘in Cardiff, in Caernarfon, in Merthyr Tydfil’, and while I’m almost certain she made the last one up, she sounded pretty chuffed. 

Her remarks came at a pleasant lilt but the more she roused the crowd, the more relentlessly lyrical she became. 

‘The old ways are breaking but so is a new dawn,’ she hummed.

‘A dawn in this darkest of nights, when our message of hope shines as a beacon and inspiration to other peoples in this world who are striving to find their voice,’ her prose stirred.

Finally: ‘You in Scotland have lit a candle for us. We follow it, and carry it with us on the way.’

It was like walking into a highly political branch of Clinton Cards. 

John Swinney rounded out the day’s proceedings. He doesn’t do messages of hope or shining beacons. If he caught a new dawn breaking anywhere south of the border, he’d fire off an angry letter demanding Scotland’s fair share of daylight in Barnett consequentials. 

It’s his verbal aggression and untethered tribalism that makes the deputy first minister such a popular turn at these gatherings. Boris Johnson was ‘a clown’, his Brexit policy ‘not just a farce’ but ‘a deadly farce’, and ‘the British state’ was ‘imploding’. The members lap Swinney up because he talks how they talk and hates who they hate. 

He pulled his best Honest John face and glowered out across the assembled masses: ‘Johnson and Trump choose lies and division. We choose to live as though in the first days of a new nation.’

Those with longer memories might recall what Swinney chose back in the days when Alex Salmond was courting Donald Trump. Honest John chose to stay in the Cabinet, at Salmond’s right hand. Revise as though you live in the first days of a new history. 


Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: Contact Stephen at

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