It was lovely to be back with “my ain tribe”, though still quite nice to not be fully back in the fold. Participating but also observing as the first ever fully accredited blogger, which bestowed the exciting benefits of access to media facilities and an invite to the media reception. This latter gift was much less exciting than might sound: there’s something deflating about being allowed to attend an event successfully gatecrashed in years gone by.
The SNP’s reputation as the party that likes to party is undimmed. Revelling into the wee small hours, with daft craic but also serious political discourse – I found myself engaged in intricate debate about the Attlee Government’s treatment of those who took the Covenant south at 2 am, astounded at the knowledge on display – the only thing missing was the community singing section. Shame.
Everyone has remarked at how overflowing the conference was. Exhibitors packed in, lots of fringe meetings, lots of receptions. Media from everywhere and the much reported 20 offical delegations from other nations. All this in itself was pretty amazing.
The scale and the number of SNP folk, though, really did have to be seen to be believed. Thousands of them – not just official delegates, but supporters and members who just wanted to be part of it all. It was incredible. Yet, it still only represented a snapshot of the membership, now numbered at 19,000. Astonishingly, the goal is to go into the referendum campaign proper with double that number of members.
There were so many new folk, but also a fair number of returners – eight years since I had last been at conference, and there was even someone who hadn’t been for sixteen. Gathering all the sheep into the fold is important: these people have generally been away busy with careers, families and lives that couldn’t quite accommodate space for activism too. They bring with them valuable experience of life outside the bubble and are back because the prize is within sight. As one pointed out, if I have to remortgage the house to afford a leave of absence to campaign for the referendum, so be it.
At times, it seemed as though the whole independence generation was thronging conference. So many young people! So confident, articulate and knowledgeable. And excited by it all. I reckon about at least a quarter of the SNP folk in Inverness were under 30 – no other party can match that.
And another difference was the number of women at conference. Many more than in my heyday and what a good thing that is. Though a few more perched on the high stools on the stage would be helpful, it is clear that the SNP’s traditional hurdle with women has been crossed.
Conference is now a fully fledged family event, not just couples, but so many babies and children there too, prompting some of us to suggest it was time to create a Born to be Free affiliated organisation. I met some of the party’s more famous offspring, and some who reminded me how old I really am, now they are all growed up. Eight years ago, it was unusual to see whole families at conference – weans were barely tolerated – but the mood and atmosphere is now very different. Room for all: the SNP’s reputation as a big tent is well-founded. And such shifts in demographics matter.
Not only do they make for a different conference but also, a changed dynamic in the whole party. A party that can encompass the widest possible range of experience and opinion is a very good thing, evidenced in the latest broadcast Forward which includes an emotive orchestral treatment of Let’s Work Together.
The excitement in the hall at the launch of the Roadmap to Independence was tangible and showed just how much groundwork, how many hours invested and how much attention to detail paid since May. The four step approach that aims to galvanise first members, then supporters, then the wider public is a slow march to victory, one which starts with a 35% base in support for a yes to independence. There is no doubt that the targets for voter identification are also in place – numbers and timelines – as well as the policy positions on some of the tricky issues and of course, the funds thanks to that remarkable bequest from Edwin Morgan.
Nothing is being left to chance. The best campaigning machine in Scottish politics has set out its stall to create the biggest and most successful campaign ever. With all those people on its side – the old hands, the new kids on the block, the ones that have been away and are now returned, activists ranging in age from 12 to 80, from a range of backgrounds and communities – who all share a fervent belief in a single goal, you really wouldn’t bet against the SNP pulling it off.