30 October 2007

Back from Aviemore: Reflections

Well, I'm finally back, and recovered from a day of travelling, enduring a mad German woman driving the rail replacement coach to Edinburgh, a packed Virgin Train to Wigan, and a taxi driver who was obsessed with the circus.

Firstly, I have a little more understanding of how bloggery is having some effect on politics. I found myself being introduced to one of the SNP's MPs - I'll spare him his blushes but he knows who he is - and his reaction when I told him my nom de blog was to smile and say, "Oh, that's you!" This means that people have at least heard of me (and, therefore, that it's only a matter of time before I'm invited onto Strictly Come Dancing). Of course, conversation ensued, but was that wariness I saw in his eyes? Was he worrying that everything he'd said was going to end up on these pages? Perhaps, but he needn't have. Firstly, I'd not had the greatest night's sleep, so a good deal of Sunday was just a big blur... I can remember names and faces but with the exception of two or three things, my memory of actual content is shaky. Secondly, I've had a "There but for the grace of blogs go I" moment, with an incriminating photo been published over at Adam Smith was a Socialist. Now, in fairness, he's in the photo too, but all I'll say is that if I'd realised just how much chest was showing, I would have fastened my top button. So I come away knowing that politicians are not just aware of bloggery, but they are reading. And, more importantly, they realise that 1) bloggers can often be a little more independent than MPs would like, and 2) if the blogger in question's brain isn't on Planet Zargon at the time, what they say can be made very public very quickly. I also learned, as I asserted in music on Friday night, that the night does indeed have a thousand eyes.

Anyway. The level of interest struck me: the press, foreign diplomats, and lots of ordinary Party members were present, many of the latter for the sheer experience of seeing the SNP meet for the first Conference while in Government. This meant that the venue was too small, and for Alex Salmond's speech, overspills were set up. Predictably, they then filled to capacity and I ended up in the exhibition hall, watching on the television there.

It gave me a lesson on just how the change in administration at Holyrood has altered politics: like many others, I used to lambast the LibDems for appearing to be in Government and in Opposition at the same time. I shouldn't have done: that is precisely the situation the SNP finds itself in, being part of various adminstrations at the local level, being in Government at Holyrood, but being in Opposition at Westminster. This predictably has changed the way debates are carried. Local Councillors are keener to avoid gesture politics. Members of the Government can make policy announcements for the first time, but delegates now have to think about what happens if SNP policy becomes Government policy. In Opposition, it's easy to come up with a 'wish list' of things that the Party would like to happen. In Government, there's a set budget to work under and in a minority Government, policy has to find its way through Parliament. Even the (Opposition) MPs are advising caution, saying that they have a chance of negotiating with the UK Government on a some issues, and that the last thing they need is for Conference to tie their hands and give them less room for manoeuvre in those negotiations. The reality that actually running the country is a complex business, with no room for error, was made clear, but to many around, it was already understood, I suspect.

Then there was Alex Salmond's speech. It raised a few eyebrows that the FM made the usual reference to other parties, and while Labour and the LibDems got it in the neck, which you'd expect, the Scottish Tories, and even David Cameron, were left off the hook. It was the Conservative MP for Penrith and the Border who was the focus of Salmond's ire. Then there was his challenge to the other parties to engage with the National Conversation, and agree to a referendum on independence... or face the electoral consequences. It was a strong speech (though the Greens may have a lot to say about the M8 being completed), and the slogan, "Not just a proud nation, but a nation of which we can be proud" stuck out for me.

So that, as they say, was that. But I can't help but wonder about next year: this year delegates could take stock, and look at how the Government should act for the next three and a half years. Next year, the Westminster Election will be back in view, potentially just over six months away. Even if it's delayed to 2010, the European Elections will be about eight months away, and campaigning will begin for them. Plus which, either a delayed Westminster Election - or decoupled Local Elections being brought forward - will see an election in 2009 (Europe, possibly Westminster), 2010 (perhaps Westminster, maybe Local Elections), and 2011 (Holyrood). That's before you consider what happens if another Party in addition to the SNP and the Greens finds the cojones to support a referendum on independence. In short, this year brings with it a lull, a calm before the storm, especially as, unlike the three main UK parties, the SNP gathering took place after Gordon Brown ruled out an Election this Autumn. The electoral cycle is about to enter a major active phase, and I'm looking forward to next year's Conference, and seeing activists steel themselves once again for the battles to come.

PS I haven't forgotten the Whip. It will come at some stage. Honest.


Ted Harvey said...

Good on you to encourage your people to think pro-actively now about the changes that come about when coming into power.

Better this than leave it for the inevitable pressures and tensions to break out into turf wars and schisms (a bit like in the tradition of the Scottish Labour Party?)

I see early signs of such tensions. For example the rumoured intention of the Scottish Government to return community regeneration to local councils will be an absolute and utter disaster - just ask anyone involved in community regeneration, other that is than councillors and their officials. It's just not in the blood of local councils to hand over or genuinly share power at the community level.

In general I think there is a great naiveté on the part of the SNP about the capacity and motivations of local councils.

The Administration needs to quickly do some hard thinking about how it will get around the 'usual suspects' (i.e. local authority officials, well funded 'intermediaries' like the SCVO and the Chartered Institute of Housing) and meaningfully engage with the real representatives and activists in the community and voluntary sectors.

Mountjoy said...

Very good poll bounce for the SNP post conference.

ComRes poll for Independent: Scotland breakdown:

Con 17%
Lab 24%
Other 44%
(most of which will be SNP)

BellgroveBelle said...

Nice to meet you at conference. Well done on the karaoke too, I'm not brave enough to do that!

Will said...

Ted - I think such tensions are inevitable: human nature is going to kick in sooner or later, and obviously local Councils are never going to sing from entirely the same hymnsheet as Holyrood. What is needed is for all sides to keep their feet on the ground, and the signs from Aviemore were, in my view, encouraging.

Mountjoy - it would be nice if we got a big Scottish poll commissioned right now, with the fieldwork done ASAP. Then we'd know what people were thinking. The most recent one to be published was carried out a month ago.

BB - nice to meet you too, but be warned, I will get you singing next year! I don't buy the 'not brave enough' line as you put in a good performance as a Conference speaker, so by contrast, a singsong in the bar shouldn't be too tough! :-)

Anonymous said...

"I used to lambast the LibDems for appearing to be in Government and in Opposition at the same time. I shouldn't have done"

Very graciously conceded.