Never blog in anger is a lesson I learned early in this enterprise.
And while I was sorely tempted to hit the keyboard immediately after the “great NATO debate”, it would have been a foolish move. I’d already formed the headline, after all, before I’d even left the hall: “the leadership won the vote but lost respect/the argument/the party/delete as appropriate”. Any of them would have been unfair and untrue.
Had I done so, I would have missed out on hearing others’ reactions – important reactions too, like that of one seasoned political observer I spoke to in the aftermath. What did I think of it all, he asked? I bristled and fulminated and gnashed and wailed. What did you think, I asked? I thought it was wonderful, he said. It has been years since I had the privilege to witness such passion, such heat, such quality in a political debate. This is what politics has been missing and this is the sort of politics people want, he opined. He has never, knowingly, voted SNP in his life but is coming close to voting yes in the referendum now.
That stopped me in my tracks. Burns has been misquoted twice already in dispatches at conference, so allow me to do so a third time. “O wad some power the giftie gie us to see ourselves as ithers see us“. For Friday’s debate won the SNP many admirers and a not insignificant number of new friends.
There is no doubt that the outcome of the great NATO debate is still filtering through. Many are still angry and fretting over what it actually means; some of the anti-protagonists are still processing, still too sore to talk about it, but have not taken their ba’ away completely. The fact that so many of them are still here at conference says a lot about the mettle of folk who collectively make up the SNP. They’ve learned a lot over the years. And to prove it, this is what Jamie Hepburn MSP, one of the leaders of the parliamentary rebel gang, had to say to me – exclusively, I might add.
“Of course I’m disappointed that we didn’t carry the vote. But at the end of the day, we held the debate and outsiders looking in thought it was good we had that type of debate. And it was good. We shouldn’t be downhearted. It’s time to respect the party’s decision and we’ll move on from here. I’m not surprised how close it was. I could tell in the build up that it was going to be close. And it’s not unhealthy for there to be a balance of different opinions in the party.
“To anyone thinking of resigning from the SNP over this, I’d say, remember why you joined, remember why we’re here. Those reasons still stand. The SNP is still, the best and most appropriate vehicle for achieving independence and social justice for Scotland.”
Wise words everyone in the party should reflect on. Including the leadership.
But let me scotch a myth. The leadership did not support this debate. It did not call for it nor sanction it, nor expect to find itself practising some long-forgotten dark arts. This update on party defence policy was exclusively the work of the Westminster MPs. It was touted to party and briefed to the media that it had leadership support. At the start of the summer, that wasn’t remotely true. And as someone who has been around some of this stuff, albeit a long time ago, I sensed then from what was being said and what wasn’t, that this wasn’t a leadership move. Which is why I blogged as I did way back then (a post, which even to me, seems uncannily prescient), mentioning both Anguses in dispatches but not the leadership. I also tweeted my doubts that this was stamped Made by Salmond and was rounded upon.
Well, now we know. The reason the leadership ended up bossing this debate in the finishing straight was because it was all unravelling. Despite assurances they’d been given that it was all under control, that the party membership was ready to take this step and that the vote was a shoo-in. Which is why the speakers in favour of the resolution were some of the party’s biggest hitters. And it is why many voted for the resolution and against what they actually believed.
Because at this stage in the referendum campaign – so near and yet still so far – they did not want to deliver a defeat to the leadership. And while it was uncomfortable being reminded of the reasons for my withdrawal from front line, active politics by seeing some manoeuvres dusted down and brought back into action, frankly I cannot blame the leadership at all. The leadership did what it had to do to save the day. And the point is that it – and the party and its members, supporters and activists – should never have been put in this position in the first place.
But a few days’ reflection suggests that the great NATO debate was not so unhelpful. In this debate, the SNP showed what it offers the people of Scotland. Indeed, it reminded itself of where it came from. Here was a party charged with passion, belief and commitment. People stamped and cheered and boo-ed and tutted in equal measure because they cared, because this was something that mattered. Folk in the hall were applauding speakers and speeches even though they were on opposing sides. Indeed, it was impossible to tell from the clap-o-meter which way the vote might go.
The great NATO debate might have left everyone feeling somewhat bruised – not least the leadership – but has surely taught a few lessons. Not least that something with meat on the bones on the conference agenda brings about a full delegate complement and a thronging and thriving atmosphere.
But the biggest lesson? That debate is nothing to be scared of. Indeed, by showing what it is made of, the SNP will have gained a few yes votes. A party capable of hosting debates replete with purpose and principle is likely to curry favour with an electorate – and indeed, a media – fed up with a whitewashed political discourse. Spin and its misuse over the last decade has made people mistrustful of politicians. No one respects what they have to say; few believe any utterance they make without suspecting a hidden agenda. With the great NATO debate, the SNP has given people at least, pause for thought.
For it showed that actually, the SNP has at its core, a different DNA, one with a range of beliefs in its membranes, that amounts to more than a single cause. That the party is thinking and working out what independence means, not just for its members and activists, but for Scotland. The SNP demonstrated that the people’s trust in it is not misplaced, that those of us trying to persuade more to vote yes to independence do so from a position of more than self-preservation.
And having dabbled with the concept of allowing real debate once, it is time for the party to loosen its stays. For too long, the SNP has behaved like a buttoned up matron. Stiff and unbending, brooking no dissent, wrapping those who stray from the line over the knuckles with a ruler, fixing others who dare speak unwelcome thoughts with a reproving stare.
Enough. We have all grown up a lot in the last twelve years. The SNP has moved from protest to power; the transition, by necessity, required supreme discipline. But now? Allowing more excellent debates within its membership – on issues which people really are asking us about on the doorsteps – would mark the SNP as a properly mature movement. At ease with itself, confident in its beliefs, comfortable with who it is and what it offers the people of Scotland.
If the SNP learned nothing else from the great NATO debate, it is surely that there is much to be gained and little to be lost from allowing debate to flourish. After all, who dares wins.