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26 August 2015updated 07 Sep 2021 10:43am

A haunted conference hall, the wings of St Nicola, and the social justice industrial complex

A kilted activist greeted an MP with the words, “Och, it’s nice to see you with your clothes on for once!”

By Helen Lewis

There’s a point in any conference season when the merry-go-round of strange hotels, endless train journeys and food eaten from vans catches up with you, so at first I thought I had hallucinated Alex Salmond saying that the existence of ghosts merited further investigation. “You know I’m interested in astronomy and when you’re looking at the stars you’re looking at the past,” he told BuzzFeed. “Maybe that could be an explanation.”

Perhaps these spooky reflections were prompted by the SNP’s annual meeting in Aberdeen, which was definitely haunted – by the spectre of New Labour. There was total message discipline and little dissent from the floor (only motions on fracking and land reform interrupted the clap-a-thon). There were very few of the colourful eccentrics who characterise Lib Dem or Ukip conferences and plenty of former special advisers now reincarnated as sharp-suited lobbyists.

Hanging over everything was the air of an exquisite triumph being savoured. On the last day, Nicola Sturgeon was introduced to the hall as the “leader of the most united party in the United Kingdom”. Sturgeon, in one of those block-colour dresses that she has made her signature look, even told the crowd that the SNP had “won the general election”. Quite a boast, when there’s a Tory prime minister in Downing Street.

Mocking the press gang

One lesson the SNP has definitely learned from New Labour is how to play the press game. During the referendum, there were frequent protests from the party’s supporters about the “biased BBC” and the general hostility of the media. It is hard to reconcile this conspiracy-theorist view with the facts on the ground: the Scottish Sun backed the SNP at the general election and the
independence-supporting newspaper the National is seldom less than full-throated in its support for the party. Sturgeon might have mocked the Daily Mail in her speech – winning cheers for pointing out that “the most dangerous woman in Britain” is the nicest thing it has said about her – but that didn’t stop her appearing at a press event hosted by the paper on 17 October. She might mock the right-wing newspapers but, unlike Jeremy Corbyn, she sees no benefit in ostentatiously freezing them out.

Bias can go both ways. I picked up a copy of Holyrood magazine in the press tent, which featured a picture of Sturgeon with wings and a halo on the front, above the legend: “Angel of the north – can she do no wrong?” The editor insisted on Twitter that this was addressed sardonically to SNP supporters, as presumably was the headline inside: “National treasure”.

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Nothing under the kilt

With the exception of Michelle Thomson – whose suspension from the party ended all those stirring references to “the 56” – the new crop of Nationalist MPs has been very well-behaved, particularly given that so many of them had relatively little experience of politics before winning their seats.

Philippa Whitford, who has worked as a doctor at a UN hospital in Gaza, is particularly impressive. When I mixed up the order of speakers at a panel, she told me briskly, “As a breast surgeon, left and right is pretty important to me.”

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Still, woe betide the journalist who tries to sniff out any scurrilous gossip about the relentlessly disciplined new intake. At one fringe meeting, I pricked up my ears when a kilted activist greeted an MP with the words, “Och, it’s nice to see you with your clothes on for once!” It transpired that they both go to the same swimming pool.

Rough justice

Do you remember a time when students were allowed to be right tits and no one noticed, except perhaps their friends and the student paper (which didn’t even have a website)? I feel a pang of sympathy for an undergraduate at Warwick University who got upset at the idea that he might be asked to attend a workshop on consent and posted a picture of himself holding a sign declaring: “This is not what a rapist looks like.”

I mean, the guy is obviously wrong – there is no “rapist face”, sadly, or everyone’s life would be easier – but it doesn’t do the cause of feminism much good for thousands of people to laugh at him on social media and then have that gleefully seized on by publications in search of viral content (the story has ended up on the Huffington Post, the Independent, the New Republic and many other websites). On the internet, something is emerging that I might as well call the “social justice industrial complex”. It’s very easy to get people to read stories that make them feel good about themselves – and who wouldn’t want to share an article that demonstrates that you have the correct attitude to rape? But such journalism is often wildly unfair to its subjects, elevating everyday idiots to global hate figures. Worst of all, is there any evidence that such pieces actually change anyone’s mind?

Taxing questions

News just in: not all Tories are awful. In the debate on tax credits, a new Conservative MP called Heidi Allen made the most eye-catching intervention – and it was her maiden speech. “I became an MP to stand up for the vulnerable,” she told the House. “To lead the way for those too tired to find it for themselves . . . For those of us proud enough to call ourselves compassionate Conservatives, it must not go on to the backs of the working families we purport to serve.” Strong stuff, yet it doesn’t seem to worry George Osborne.

Perhaps the latest research from Opinium should, though: it showed Boris Johnson leading Jeremy Corbyn by 35 per cent to 24 when pitched head to head – but Osborne and the Labour leader only tied.