Shortly after Theresa May had sat down following her speech in Manchester, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon tweeted: “Spare a thought for those of us still to deliver our conference speech and now fretting about all the things that could go wrong”.
The SNP National Conference begins in Glasgow on Sunday. I am sure Ms Sturgeon will have some cough sweets handy when she addresses delegates on Tuesday afternoon, that the Velcro on the backdrop will have been reinforced with superglue and that viciously witty one liners will have been prepared for so-called ‘pranksters’.
I reported on my first SNP conference in 1990 and have been to a fair few since. Until about ten years ago, SNP conferences were informal, friendly and accessible events where things occasionally went wrong and nobody seemed too bothered.
In recent years, as the party’s membership influence power and bank balance have increased, the SNP National Conference has become a bigger, slicker and more professional affair – with a hike in prices to match. A previous favourite venue, a theatre in Inverness, is now simply too small and the party now meets in part of the vast Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre in Glasgow, a city that used to belong to Labour but whose council is now in SNP hands. The conference programme this year runs to 84 pages, half of that devoted to fringe events that spill out of the conference centre into the neighbouring hotel.
The conference will show a united party because – certainly in terms of the big-ticket items like believing deeply in independence, opposing Brexit, supporting Catalonian democracy and trusting the levers of government to reduce inequality – the SNP is fundamentally united. No current cabinet member will go off-message. Even amongst former ministers returned to the back benches by Ms Sturgeon, dissent will only be voiced privately to friends for as long as they remain in the Scottish Parliament.
It is hard to imagine anything going badly wrong at the SNP National Conference. But that does not mean that everything is going right.
Support for independence has remained static. The SNP lost 21 of its 56 Westminster seats in the summer. Longstanding party members, admiring some of the radicalism now on show from Jeremy Corbyn, wonder when it was that they themselves moved from being radical to mainstream. Many regard the official line on the timing of a second referendum on independence as worryingly vague.
And then there’s money.
The front cover of the conference programme is made up of a list of achievements of the SNP in office. Almost all cost money to deliver, and will continue to cost: free prescriptions, paying public sector employees the Living Wage, doubling childcare provision and building 110,000 affordable homes. One word on the cover is bigger than the rest: ‘Progress’.
The reality is that the Scottish Government has almost no spare money to play with as the ‘block grant’ funding from Westminster has been reduced and the tax powers granted to Scotland, have failed to fill the gap.
It wouldn’t be a party conference without announcements of new initiatives. But with each commitment to fund something new will come a question: what current Government-funded activity will be cut to pay for it? Progress comes at a price.