Last week, the SNP’s 81st national conference rolled in to Aberdeen.
With four times the number of auditorium seats, three times as many observers and a media six times the size of last year’s event, it was easily the biggest conference ever organised by the SNP. And with SNP membership having quadrupled to more than 114,000 since the referendum - more than 3,500 in North Ayrshire alone - our opinion poll ratings at record levels and the party now the third largest party in the UK Parliament, despite only contesting seats in Scotland, First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon MSP, arrived to find the SNP in high spirits and rude health.
For those not involved in a political party, from the outside, a conference it may look like positive reinforcement – an echo chamber of politically like-minded individuals loudly agreeing with each other. Of course, this does happen and members have the chance to meet with and make friends with fellow members from across the country – whilst perhaps posing for the odd selfie with the politicians they most admire.
However, our conference is about much more than that. Party leaders have a chance to articulate and clarify policy positions, define our vision for the future and reach the public at large in a way only otherwise possible during an election.
In her opening speech to conference, the First Minister took the opportunity to set out the SNP’s position on any potential future independence referendum. Ironically, the issue of an imminent independence referendum is mostly raised by despairing opposition parties, desperate to make the SNP appear to be obsessed with one issue and not – in reality – a credible and competent majority party of government.
The position has actually been clarified before, but for the benefit of her detractors, the First Minister once again made it plain that the SNP accepted the result of the 2014 referendum and that electoral success for the SNP at Holyrood will not be a mandate for another. Only if a clear majority of Scotland’s people demand another referendum, would the SNP commit to one – as of course should any party under such circumstances.
Delegates enthusiastically debated 29 resolutions and for the first time in years, one I submitted was not chosen. Last year it was ‘Strengthening the Scottish Economy.’
Issues debated included SNP Government proposals on land reform which were rejected by delegates as not being radical enough. As SNP members make policy at Conference, the Bill going through the Scottish Parliament will now be strengthened.
Away from the main hall, the conference remains a hive of activity, with scores of exhibitors’ stands lining the public areas and packed fringe events held in the smaller theatres. It is here that members and politicians engage with numerous organisations. Fringe events are hugely informative, providing food for thought to politicians and activists.
As Convenor of Holyrood’s Finance Committee I was invited to engage in discussions at the High Pay Centre event, a think tank that seeks to redress the disproportionate and growing differences between the very high and low paid. I also served on a Federation of Small Businesses Question and Answer panel and – unrelated to finance – was on an Action on Hearing Loss panel, on improving audiology services in our NHS.
Conference closed on Saturday afternoon and despite some bleary eyes from numerous social events connected to it, members look energised and enthused. With only six months to go to until the Holyrood elections, that energy will be harnessed to help secure an historic third term for the SNP.