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17 October 2015

The SNP’s conference is friendly, rousing – and boring. Just what the party wants

There has been little drama at the Nationalists' autumn meeting in Aberdeen. Bad for journalists - great for the party.

By Helen Lewis

It’s my first time at SNP conference – and I don’t think I’m alone. Every time I bump into a veteran journalist or activist here at the Aberdeen Exhibition and Conference Centre, they tell me how much bigger – and more corporate – the event has become. The presence of lobbyists from McDonalds has become the symbol of the SNP’s elevation from insurgent to incumbent. “A few years ago, all the exhibitors were in a marquee because there wasn’t room for them,” one campaigner tells me. “Now there are only two venues in Scotland big enough for the SNP – this, and the SECC [in Glasgow].” (That must wound the Lib Dems a little: last year they held their autumn conference at the SECC. Now the Nationalists have seven times as many as MPs as they do, and instead they decamped to the less imposing surroundings of Bournemouth.)

The atmosphere is still laidback – there are no spitting protesters, no big fences, and the security at the entrance is minimal. Nicola Sturgeon has been roaming the conference floor, having her photo taken with anyone and everyone, rather than hiding out in her hotel room. 

The entrance, free from protesters and heavy-handed security.

The one thing this conference isn’t is exciting. “Another news-free fringe,” sighed one journalist, returning to the press zone (actually a tent out the back of the arena). There was a moment of excitement when we all rushed into the hall yesterday to hear Alex Salmond set out the party’s position on Syria. “There is no one in Syria who is not being bombed by someone,” he told the conference. For that reason, he wants “no more futile military interventions”, and his short speech mentioned the duration of the war in Afghanistan and the lack of money set aside for reconstruction in Libya. This opens up an intriguing dividing line with Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour, after shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn indicated that he was open to supporting military action in Syria. Could the SNP outflank Corbyn, a former chair of Stop the War, in their dovishness?

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Listening to Alex Salmond talk about Syria.

The only other (minor) disagreements came on land reform and fracking. Delegates wanted the former to be more radical, and rejected calls for an outright ban on the latter. But overall, any tensions were well submerged. I even chaired a fringe on Palestine – a subject which reliably provokes fiery debate – with barely a murmur of disagreement between the panel or from the floor.

Salmond takes to the airwaves.

More evidence of the straight-laced nature of the conference is the lack of colourful characters. So far the closest I’ve come to the kind of eccentric excitement you get from Kippers and Lib Dems is this group of people in raspberry berets and a man in a tartan suit. Oh, and I did see a man fish a business card out of his sporran earlier. 

A few berets add some colour.

Overall, the impression is of a focused, even controlled party – one that knows what it wants, and is still on the rise. Yes, journalists might be left wistful for the sheer amount of stories that are coming out of Labour right now. But Sturgeon, and the SNP, would rather be credible than chaotically interesting. 

The front cover of Holyrood magazine.