Since I first started in public affairs almost 20 years ago, I have been to the majority of Labour and Conservative party conferences. In recent years, I have sometimes dreaded the prospect, but, like many things in life, I come out the other side feeling pleased that I have been. Despite the hassle and expense, going to them normally feels worthwhile.
So with a certain amount of trepidation, this year I made my SNP debut. As it turns out, after the maelstrom of the ever growing Labour/Tory conferences it was almost a joy to be in a (very wet) Glasgow at a conference with a far more homespun feel to it. It felt much more relaxed and much less hectic than the other two. Despite the passionate rallying cries for independence and (mostly) against Brexit, it had the feel of a large family gathering, something which Nicola Sturgeon alluded to in her speech.
Non-political nerds will have to forgive me as I highlight the ‘interesting’ differences. For a start, as mentioned, the size. Official figures said 4,000 people attended – at times it felt more like 400 to me. The fringe programme was supremely modest (60 open ones) but no less engaging in subject matter. Needless to say the three Brexit fringes seemed to be by far the most popular. There were 40 exhibitors, most of whom were from the non-profit sector, and considering we had all the Scottish Government Ministers and Leader there, security was gloriously light. The relaxed one man bag checker, the lack of photo on the pass and all round low key security was a refreshing change from the scanners and endless queues at the Tory conference. Some may mock this light touch but it should be celebrated that Scotland seems to be generally immune to serious terrorist threats.
Other unusual things I noticed were: the one café in the conference area stopped serving tea or coffee during the speeches to make sure delegates didn’t dally around and actually went in to listen to the debates. The fringe meetings were strictly timetabled for three set periods during the day, so they too didn’t interrupt the main action. It really was empty outside the full hall when the key speeches were taking place.
And it seemed to work. Although the conference hall was big (so much so that I was easily able to get in to watch the Leader’s speech, which at the other two is a near impossibility unless you are a member and queue for ages), it was nearly always full. Contrast that with the Tory conference where the main hall was half empty and all the focus was on the fringe programme (one in particular).
To seasoned conference goers who, like me, believe all the action happens outside of the main hall, this was quite an extraordinary thing. I guess it is what conferences were like before the lobbyists and corporate interests over ran the two big ones. As a result though, anyone who did make the trek up north or across from Edinburgh was rewarded with decent conversations with MPs, MSPs and their staff.
The other aspect I found fascinating was the curious juxtaposition of the elected politicians when debating subjects. At an energy fringe I went to, we had Paul Wheelhouse, Scotland’s Energy Minister and Alan Brown, the SNP Westminster Energy spokesperson. Paul was full of the joys of the Scottish Government’s energy policy whereas Alan was bemoaning the situation in Westminster and how ineffective and full of hot air the Westminster Energy Ministers and their Shadows were.
It really brought home the contrast between SNP MPs and MSPs. To me, being an MP is the route to take if you want to make a serious change to the country – i.e. go on and get into Government and be actually running things. In Scotland, being an MSP is what fulfils this role. Being an SNP MP is like choosing a life of permanent rebellion, being a disrupter but never having any hope of actually holding the reigns of power. This stark difference was really brought home to me at the conference.
So although I have no strong feelings about Scottish matters (apart from some fishing ones), I really enjoyed the conference and from a professional point of view found it well worth the trip. It made me think perhaps I should join the London branch of the SNP…but then on my way back south I chatted to a delightful SNP member and realised that perhaps my views weren’t 100% aligned with their policies.