What a very strange conference this is. I'm at the SNP Spring conference in Aviemore, at the tremendously mediocre MacDonald Resort to speak at an Electoral Reform fringe meeting called "Hung, Drawn and Quartered – what a hung parliament might mean for Scotland". (see tomorrow's Comment is Free)
Many delegates are muttering that they hope the venue will change next year – partly because the surroundings are so uninspiring and so few local people are employed here. The courteous East European staff are friendly and effective, but it does feel like we've all travelled to Lithuania rather than the centre of Scotland.
Alex Salmond's speech was clearly aimed beyond the conference hall and seemed a bit..... hmm. The standing ovation at the end was a bit forced. Maybe everyone is tired.
The new slogan – Scotland needs champions -- was hammered home in a new addition to the existing promotional film that features a lad climbing a mountain with the help of an almost statistically valid range of national archetypes offering a bike, clap on the back, high five and willing smile to urge the determined lad on his way. You've seen it. Now Alex Salmond intervenes with an incredibly sotte voce performance to gently suggest the SNP are the only people who can act as champions for Scotland.
His performance is softer and far less aggressive than usual, and it mostly works. But the conference hall emptied straight afterwards with a queue right across the auditorium which must have been extremely daunting for the rank and file members set to debate policy afterwards. I stayed for the minimum pricing "debate" – the hall was half empty even though the SNP government is currently locked in near mortal combat with the opposition to try and get this policy through. (see tomorrow's Scotsman column!) There were very interesting well crafted speeches from Christine Grahame and a young woman from the Young Nationalists – but no debate. Indeed all the policy "debates" I sat in for were discussions carried by acclamation.
This just isn't good enough. The nationalists pride themselves on being an active, functioning, democratic party unlike the "London" parties. But their conferences, while very jolly and personable, are starting to resemble those controversy-free zones down south. Class sizes, the Curriculum for Excellence, a switch to community sentencing in Prison policy, new building without using PFI, spending cuts, the effectiveness of the concordat and minimum pricing – these are all big current thorny issues for the whole of Scotland never mind the SNP. Where were the naysayers, awkward squads and rallying cries? Where was the debate revealing new evidence on big issues – where is the reflection in a conference setting of the ENDLESS despairing debate going on in shops, closes and staff rooms around Scotland every day?
I know we are weeks away from an election. But this conference has left me unshaken and unstirred. The SNP must and can do better.