Sketch: Bridging the divide at the SNP conference
Sketch: Liam Kirkaldy tries to get to grips with events at the SNP conference in Glasgow
“We are the one and only party in Scotland that is national in reach, in scope and in perspective,” John Swinney boasted.
It was the opening day of the SNP conference and the Deputy FM was tasked with getting things started. The word PROGRESS was emblazoned across the screen at the SECC, as well as across the top table, on either side of the stage, and on the front of the lectern.
But what did it mean? Apart from allowing you to zoom in and photograph Swinney under the word ‘OGRE’, what was it all for? “We are truly the national party of Scotland,” he explained, before expanding to tell us the SNP is a “truly inclusive national party”.
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A national party, that is national in reach, with an inclusive national approach. Political messaging is a nuanced business, but it felt like Swinney was arguing the Scottish National Party is a national party.
A national party for a national nation. It was a good point, and delegates were obviously excited. But before he could start asserting that the SNP is also both Scottish and a Party, the Education Secretary moved on.
The SNP governs in the national interest, he claimed, using its decision to maintain free university tuition and ban fracking as evidence. “That is the mark of our party – the national party that takes decisions in the national interest of Scotland.”
The idea of the SNP making decisions in the national interest went down very well in the hall, and it was shrewd of Swinney not to have argued the opposite. But then that’s political experience for you.
With that, three days of nationalist fun commenced. Actually, the biggest development arguably came on the final day, with the announcement that Angus Robertson had grown a beard.
It was a smart policy – bold, dynamic, hairy. But apart from Robertson’s facial hair – a clear attempt to introduce additional momentum to his face – there was plenty more going on.
Mhairi Black got the usual rock star welcome, making a passionate defence of a free press, before using her speech to criticise a journalist she doesn’t like. Though it later turned out she had got the wrong journalist.
Meanwhile Derek Mackay continued to alternate between his affable, easy-going, 1970s gameshow-host approach to his job as convener and his hostage-reading-out-a-ransom approach to being Finance Secretary.
A cabinet secretary’s role at these things is generally to run through their portfolio’s greatest hits, and that’s more or less what Mackay did, even if his manner of delivery suggested he found his own achievements somewhat disturbing.
Reading from his speech like a man trying to gain the approval of his kidnappers, Mackay highlighted successes in tackling unemployment and building more roads. But that wasn’t all. He had cleverly saved the best till, if not last, then at least till later.
Pausing for dramatic effect, he said: “And of course there is the small matter of the Queensferry Crossing, a new landmark for the nation, a symbol of what this country can achieve.”
Everyone absolutely loved that. Which is fair enough, really, it’s a great crossing. In fact, not only is the Queensferry Crossing a crossing, it’s also a bridge. But, as Mackay’s statement made clear, it’s not just a bridge, and a crossing – it is also a “landmark” and a “symbol”. A symbol which has largely been used to beat the party’s political opponents.
And according to Mackay, as well as being a crossing, a bridge, a landmark and a symbol, the crossing is also “a message”. “A message to the world,” he said. “We are Scotland, we build bridges, not walls.”
It was a nice idea and the hall loved it, even if the interests of balance demand the need to state that Scotland does also build walls. Standing in the SECC, Mackay was surrounded by walls. There were no bridges.
In fact, walls aren’t inherently bad things, in and of themselves – they form important parts of buildings. But there was no time to start obsessing about construction, because it was time for the First Minister.
So how would Nicola Sturgeon go about building bridges?
The problem with Labour, she explained, is that they are like ferrets in a sack. “Scottish Labour is currently having its annual leadership election,” she said. “Hypocrites, plotters, betrayers, barrel scrapers. No, that’s not what we’ve been calling the candidates. That’s what they’ve been calling each other.”
Next, Sturgeon followed Mackay in running through the party’s achievements, boasting: “We are connecting Scotland for the 21st century and beyond.” Connecting Scotland for the 21st century. It really is one hell of a bridge. But, still, what did it all mean?
“There is now a battle of ideas underway across the globe,” Sturgeon argued. “A battle between those who want to turn inwards and those determined to look outwards.
“We know what side we are on. Our party is internationalist to its core and it will always be so.”
The hall leapt to its feet and Swinney looked impressed. An internationalist party for a national nation. Looks like we’ll need a bigger bridge.
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