Subscribe to Holyrood updates

Newsletter sign-up


Follow us

Scotland’s fortnightly political & current affairs magazine


Subscribe to Holyrood
Sketch: Ex-leaders who cast long shadows

Sketch: Ex-leaders who cast long shadows

“Please welcome our new party leader, the First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon…” 

For a moment there it was like we’d gone back in time. Had the entirety of 2023 just been some weird fever dream? Certainly, that’s something SNP conference delegates could get behind, given their fall in the polls, the police investigation and other travails.

Sturgeon’s face beamed over the conference hall, pledging to be the FM for “all of Scotland”, telling us Scotland can be “bridge builders” (but not ferry builders). Then there was footage of John Swinney with hair, and that’s what gave it away. 

Had they put the wrong tape in? Had conference organisers simply hoped the party faithful would be so enthused about being in Aberdeen that no one would notice? So much for Sturgeon not stealing the spotlight from Humza Yousaf. 

Incidentally that archive footage was played immediately after the former first minister had definitely not stolen the spotlight by holding a media huddle which every journalist in Scotland seemed to attend. 

Her appearance proved a bit too much for some members, who were later seen in tears after being gifted with a hug. No wonder the party didn’t want her at conference on the day Yousaf was actually due to speak.

The footage of Sturgeon was aired just before another SNP veteran took to the stage. Depute leader Keith Brown began his speech by urging delegates to cheer Oor Nicola – who was sat in the front row – and they did so, willingly.  

He went on to praise John Swinney, labelling him “the glue that held the Scottish Government together”. Well, that explains a lot. Instead of glue, the current government is held together by sticky plasters and duct tape. It’ll do the job temporarily but it’s not exactly, to borrow a phrase, strong and stable.

But, Brown said, there is now a “third giant emerging amongst our ranks”. He was referring to Yousaf, of course. He urged delegates to applaud – and they did so, but clearly a bit more reluctantly than for Oor Nicola. The cheers are several decibels lower.

The depute leader goes on to praise the “shining diamond” that is the latest SNP loser, Katy Loudon. She was “a fantastic ambassador for the SNP”, he said. She made a great sacrificial lamb, anyway. 

And the rest of Brown’s keynote speech is spent attacking his three most hated things: the Tories, Labour and the MSM (that’s mainstream media, for the uninitiated). 

Aren’t the Conservatives awful, he asks conference, who naturally agree. And isn’t Labour just as bad? More nodding heads. “Where is the hope for families, businesses and communities?” he asks. If he was hoping to set up a call-and-response, he failed. No one shouted out a reply.

The answer is clear, the SNP is that hope, he drones. Even he sounds, well, less than hopeful.

“We have to make sure – and this is our task, nobody else’s – the people of Scotland realise they can escape the chaos of Westminster mismanagement,” he adds.

And how should the SNP do that? “People want to hear a bit of hope and inspiration, and we alone of the parties can offer that. Try and make it about that.” 

Then, in a rare moment of self-reflection, he says: “Don’t do as I’ve just done and have a go at the other parties if you can avoid it.” 

“I find it very hard to avoid that,” he adds sheepishly.

The only announcement in Brown’s 20-minute speech seemed to be some sort of “rebuttal unit” which will help regular SNP members respond to criticism – like did the SNP break a promise in not having an independence referendum on 19 October?

No, no, take the NHS, for example. Brown insists the Scottish Government does not have “complete freedom” on the wholly devolved public body, but is restricted because Westminster decides what it will spend on the NHS in England, and Scotland gets some cash linked to that figure. Which is slightly bending the truth on how the Barnett formula works but you can at least follow the argument.

Then he goes on to wax lyrical about how the NHS is delivering a “fantastic service”, including telling the room how one patient requiring gall bladder surgery got that surgery on the same day. “So don’t listen to the Jackie Baillies of this world,” he tells conference. And don’t look at the official stats on NHS waiting lists either.

But, Brown goes on, “there’s no rebuttal unit in the world that can respond to all the stuff that is said about the SNP.” Awkward. He acknowledges the party has faced a “series of real challenges over recent months”. But, he adds, “we’ve had these challenges before”. Must have missed that last police investigation into the handling of party finances. 

But he is determined that the SNP can increase support for itself, and the independence cause.

“If the people in this hall and in this party can convince the people of Scotland, we’ll be on our way to independence.” Well yes, that’s generally how referendums work, Keith.

And not that he was talking pish, but his speech was followed by a debate on waste water.

Holyrood Newsletters

Holyrood provides comprehensive coverage of Scottish politics, offering award-winning reporting and analysis: Subscribe

Read the most recent article written by Louise Wilson - Scottish Government to scrap major climate target.

Get award-winning journalism delivered straight to your inbox

Get award-winning journalism delivered straight to your inbox


Popular reads
Back to top