There were two show-stopping speeches in the great NATO debate at SNP conference.
First, Sandra White MSP shone as the doughty, wee wumman of SNP politics. And anyone who mistakes that for a backhanded compliment knows neither me nor her very well. Sandra is actually one of the most important MSPs in the SNP group, for she has stuck by her principles through thick and thin, rarely wavered from the left-leaning path her early political experiences mapped out for her and articulates what she believes in a language which speaks to the ordinary punter.
Until Sandra spoke, the debate was in danger of collapsing under its own weight. The rawness of Jean Urquhart’s pain on it all nearly had me in tears, while John Swinney’s appeal to our rational selves was just as heartfelt in a different way. And then came Sandra, whose opening remark – that she wishes she was 12 so she’d get a stool to stand on – burst the tension.
Yet, what she said and how she said it was vitally important to the debate. Not for her the high-faluting jollying of speaking to this important yin and thon yin, she speaks with the grassroots of the party – and was rewarded with the loudest cheer of the day for that rejoinder. As for the 70% in the much misrepresented and still largely under wraps YouGov poll? Well, they couldn’t have included any voters she knew, because on the doorsteps she visits, the SNP’s policy on NATO nor NATO itself are not issues she encounters. More cheers.
For all that Sandra garnered the loudest cheers, the day really belonged to Kenny MacAskill. In truth, the argument was drifting from the pro-camp until he got up to speak. He got a standing ovation at the end – not just from those supporting his arguments – and it was utterly deserved.
What we got was vintage Kenny. Abandoning the tight constraints of the media training which has attempted to take the preacher out of the man for broadcast interviews, this was an impassioned sermon. It certainly came as a surprise to those who have come to know him as a government Minister, for this was a version of Kenny MacAskill kept under wraps for some years. And like Sandra, what he had to say mattered just as much as how he said it. Indeed, his opening joke – that I’m no poster boy for NATO and the USA – gave him a moral authority on the pro-side which others failed to articulate.
His contribution epitomised the agonies experienced by many delegates, who, like him, had come into the SNP as anti-nuclear anti-establishment agitators. He has marched with and indeed, led direct action protests – to ban the bomb and drum the poll tax out of town. But, he reminded conference, it was all about the prize of independence and to come this far, in his view, to not jettison unhelpful ballast and so, threaten achieving the glittering prize, would be unforgiveable. Identifying with all the delegates in the hall, he was tired of marching and protesting and now just wants to get there.
This crescendo finish gave him his standing ovation, tapping into a shared weariness of a journey long travelled by so many in such spectacular fashion. It was a speech which made your backbone shiver and your hair stand on end. And anyone thinking that any leadership contest after the First Minister hangs up his crown is a shoo-in for Nicola Sturgeon might want to think again.
Capitalising on his success at conference, tomorrow he takes to a bigger stage, with a raiding mission across the border. Invited to make the opening address at the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) conference in England and Wales, he will make a stark contrast with their own Home Secretary, Theresa May. Remember all that talk from Alex Salmond about Scotland being a progressive beacon for the rest of the UK? Well, this is it in action.
No doubt Kenny the preacher man will be put back in the box, but he will still barn storm, contrasting his approach and that of the Scottish Government’s to policing with the UK Government’s. In short, he will work it right up them.
“In Scotland, the police service will not be privatised, we will safeguard officer numbers, we will not implement the Windsor package (savage changes to police terms and conditions) north of the border and we will protect this vital service from Westminster cuts.”
He will extend an important hand of friendship too: “And as Scotland looks to the future we are clear that the friendship, support and solidarity between officers across these isles, will remain.” But he will point up that with the move to a single police force in Scotland, creating the UK’s second biggest single police force, means the rules of engagement have changed. A new relationship is required, one of a partnership of equals, paving the way for the Scottish police to demand parity of esteem with its counterparts elsewhere.
This matters, not least because it continues to forge good relations with a vital set of vested interests as we move towards the yes vote. Kenny MacAskill’s eyes are not just firmly on the prize in party circles, but in how he has handled all aspects of his justice brief. And suddenly, having spent years trying to work out the riddle that is the complex personality of one of the SNP’s leading lights, I’m starting to get it – and him – a little better now.
The boys in blue were out in force (sorry) at the SNP Conference. And while there have always been a healthy number of former polis in the party’s ranks (sorry again) – my ain pater being one such – this is different. For many years, there was an unhealthy suspicion among the rank and file of serving officers in particular, of what the SNP was about: no longer. This statement on the Justice Secretary’s riever mission from Scottish Police Federation General Secretary, Calum Steele, shows how far the gap has closed in recent times:
“We are not surprised that Kenny MacAskill has been invited to address the ACPO conference. The police service in England and Wales looks jealously at the service north of the border and sees that there is an alternative approach which could help deliver a world class police service against a background of shrinking budgets. They see that you don’t have to demoralise and decimate the police to save money. The police service in whatever country in the UK is never shy of seeking to import success from elsewhere and this invitation can only serve as an endorsement and recognition of the successful policing model which is being developed in Scotland.”
After a bravura performance which saved the day in the great NATO debate and without any doubt, a headline grabbing opportunity to come tomorrow, Kenny MacAskill is currently king of all he surveys. He might not yet be a potential prime leadership contender, but he is definitely back in the hunt.