As party conference speeches go, Nicola Sturgeon’s had all the force and originality of an afternoon telly repeat. And not a good series, either. We’re talking Doctors here.
Highlights: Brexit? Still bad. Tories? Still evil. Scotland? Still oppressed. Even the Bay City Rollers managed new material every few years.
First up was her much sought-after analysis of global affairs. ‘Politics today is dominated in too many countries by strongman leaders with inflated egos and an overbearing sense of entitlement,’ warned the First Minister, whom you might recognise from the life-sized portrait on her branded helicopter.
She warned of the dangers of ‘crude populism’, intoning: ‘That is not for us. That is not who we are.’ It’s not just that she managed to read this out with a straight face — someone managed to write it with one.
Teenage planet-protectress Greta Thunberg was ‘right to challenge us to do more and so are the millions of young people around the world who are campaigning alongside her’. It’s a message that would have carried slightly more authority if it hadn’t been delivered an hour after the conference raffled off a five-door Peugeot 208 to raise funds for party coffers.
Education is famously Sturgeon’s number one priority and she didn’t just mention it once, but twice. Poor old independence had to settle for a mere 22 mentions. She said she would be demanding powers to hold a Scexit referendum by the end of the year, with a view to running the poll next year.
‘The question should not be to the SNP,’ she essayed, gamely, ‘what will we do if Westminster refuses. The question should be demanded of the Westminster parties: what gives you any right to deny people in Scotland our ability to choose our own future?’
The more you listen to the First Minister talk about the law, the more you understand why a career as a solicitor wasn’t for her.
A separate Scotland, she gleamed, would be in the EU ‘and the closest neighbour to our friends in the rest of the UK’, which is true, though in the same sense that after Brexit, the UK will be the closest neighbour to our friends in the EU. The Scotland she was dreaming up would be ‘a bridge between Europe and the UK’.
Only she has refused to rule out a hard border in the event of Scexit, which would mean trading and customs barriers. This Scotland-UK-Europe flyover would be the kind where traffic only travels in one direction and, when it gets there, finds a ‘closed’ sign on the road. She wasn’t planning just any bridge. She was planning a Queensferry Crossing.
Aside from a few ovations for her second referendum haranguing, the proceedings were flatter than day-old Coke. Her party is so far ahead in the polls it could win all 59 Scottish seats in a snap election and even make the final of Strictly, but their leader reflected none of this vim.
No wonder. Competitors are beginning to test the waters. A rival populist party is waiting in the Wings. Time and circumstances are not on her side.
The leadership used to gin up the grassroots with slogans promising Scotland would be ‘Free by ‘93’, then ‘In Heaven by ‘97’, but three governments, two decades and one lost referendum later, the party has no clear path to the independence it still promises is just around the corner.
If no referendum materialises next year, will the believers continue to give this leader, even this party, the benefit of the doubt? Or will they decide That’s Plenty in 2020?
Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham gave on Monday the speech that Sturgeon should have delivered yesterday: a proper, old-fashioned roof-raiser. With a matter-of-fact tone, she told them: ‘I have wanted independence my entire adult life, ever since I first wrote to the SNP in 1967. I’ve been working for it ever since I stepped off the plane from Australia in 1976. Conference, I ain’t stopping now. One thing I have learned over those years is patience. Sheer, bloody minded, grit-your-teeth patience.’
Aside from a convivial dinner gab a few conferences ago about Gough Whitlam, the heroic 1970s Aussie PM removed from office in a near-coup, Cunningham and I are not on friendly terms. Or polite terms. Or terms. But Lord confound me if I didn’t find myself taken with her peroration from the podium.
Charging up the delegates with more energy than any of her windmills produce, she warned them: ‘We travel at the pace at which the people of Scotland want to go… and people are on the move. We are so close. The moment will come, but we must keep working for it.’
Plus, she had a long overdue go at Patrick Harvie’s lentil-bothering virtue-signallers: ‘Lend your vote to the Greens? So they can sit on their hands in the face of world-leading ambition? I don’t think so.’
The baby-Nats who joined in 2014 consider the Greens their natural allies. Old-school Nationalists think they’re particularly sanctimonious Cabbage Patch Kids.
It wasn’t all hard politics. Conference was chaired with good humour (and, as the need arose, patience) by Kirsten Oswald, the former — and, the way things are going for the Tories, future — MP for East Renfrewshire.
Oswald blends a businesslike firmness with a nerdy delight in all this politics under one roof, as when she halted proceedings to inform delegates that there were still unclaimed prizes from the raffle stall and tickets on the go for the karaoke night.
Oswald’s duties required her to keep a straight face through a debate about the endangered status of the Scots language. One exceedingly serious young man took the podium to bewail ‘the impact it has on folk’ when their language is not respected.
Half his speech was in English and the other half in Oor Wullie. His examples of Scots included ‘breeks’, ‘bunnet’ and ‘muckle glaikit numpty’, the latter of which was applied to Boris Johnson, even though the whole obscurant leid routine feels a lot like a Scottish version of BoJo’s own Latin parlour game.
‘Scots speakers kin go their hale lives wi’oot kenning they speak Scots,’ he telt us, while another delegate wanted Scots spoken at Holyrood. Jings. It’s hard enough to understand James Dornan as it is.
Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact Stephen at email@example.com. Feature image © Scottish Government by Creative Commons 2.0.