20 October 2008

Conference Diary

I've been reflecting on Conference, but seeing as I stayed out of the hall for most of it, I can only really offer generalisations on most matters: the mood is still bullish; those delegates who swung by Glenrothes are optimistic, while those who remained behind are a little more cautious; the feeling is that Gordon Brown made a tactical error by breaking the political consensus on economic matters by using the current crisis to attack the SNP. To be blunt, anyone could have told you that.

Though a visit to a fringe meeting did reveal that the SNP intends to campaign with the now customary vigour during the forthcoming European elections. Given that, in recent years, the elections to the European Parliament have largely ignored, this may be difficult, so motivating people could prove a challenge - it's hard to get excited about something you haven't really noticed happening. But if the SNP gets its vote out, then the onus will be on the other parties to get active in a way that has never really happened in European elections before. If they all succeed, then this will be the most hotly-contested and most exciting aspect of the election in the UK, and one of the most, if not the most, highly-charged campaign in the entire EU-27. If the other parties don't rise to the challenge, but the SNP plan does come to fruition, then few people might follow the campaign but the results will certainly get people's attention.

But I intend to focus the rest of my post on the alcohol off-sales debate. Now, I set out my views on this four months ago, and it seems that the conclusions I reached are largely in line with those reached by Young Scots for Independence, who raised the issue at Conference, criticising the policy of raising the age limit for alcohol off-sales to 21.

It goes without saying that I am disappointed with the outcome: the YSI position was defeated, albeit in a close-run thing. Nevertheless, I think all those concerned come out of the affair in a respectable position.

For the YSI's part, the position was put eloquently, and in advance of the debate, the disagreement was expressed in a mature, diplomatic way. Following the result, it was gracious in defeat: it had to be, and it was. I cannot, unfortunately, see what further constructive action the YSI can take on this right now, but it did engage at a time when it could make the most impact. It was not successful, but it did make the effort, and while the YSI respects the outcome of the vote, I do not see its members acting as cheerleaders, or even apologists, for the policy. That it has sought to make the case for young people to the Party rather than act merely as the Party's mouthpiece to young people is something to be welcomed. Certainly it caught the media's attention and the reaction the group received, even from opponents this weekend, was one of respect.

And indeed, that has been the reception given by the Party throughout. It would have been easy to sweep this whole thing under the carpet, and have the YSI position not reach Conference at all. Instead, the Party, Leadership and Ministers opted to engage with young people, listen, respond and defend their position. So while we disagreed, we did so in a spirit of open-ness, honesty and respect, and while the result wasn't to my liking, I think everyone could come out of the process with their heads raised. I know that I felt especially proud to be in the YSI this weekend.

And there's a wider point: the media have been all over this, and there's been an apocalyptic tone to reports on the discussion. Words like 'hijack', 'split', 'row' and 'crushed' were used, as though reporters were horrified that - Heaven forfend! - a party may wish to engage in an internal debate about a matter that concerns many of its members. Have we really got to a point where grass-roots activists reflecting openly on the policies their party should take is so shocking? What does that say about politics? Nothing good, that's for sure. Internal debate is fascinating, and deserves reporting, but the hysterical hyberbole used by sections of the press to describe the situation was wide of the mark. And the suggestion that the YSI should completely jettison the SNP and independence en masse over an issue which, while important to young people, has as much relevance to Scotland's constitutional position as the President of Chile's horoscope has to results in the SPL is rather a weak one.

One more thought: having been dragged in front of microphones to defend the YSI position on Friday morning (the other member present ran away, giving me ten seconds to prepare my thoughts on the matter), I saw a fascinating aspect to the media. Given the contrasting style of the two interviews, it was easy to see which one was being conducted by a sympathiser to the party, and which was not. One of them was a gentle, relaxed affair in which I felt confident of my performance following its conclusion. The other left me with the feeling that I had just gone twelve rounds with Ricky Hatton, havng lost my towel for throwing in purposes. The interviews were markedly different in terms of lines of questioning, tones and style, and it struck me that perhaps the interviewers' own biases were coming into play. The broadcast media is supposed to be impartial, but that didn't seem to happen, and as a result of the two interviewers' differing approaches, one station's listeners will have heard me being upbeat and diplomatic, while another station's listeners will have heard me being cagey and defensive. Perhaps even though a station has no official bias, reporters are only human, and their own thoughts will creep in.

Is there anything we can do about this?

And on a more philosphical note, would it be right to do it if there were?

Perhaps, as we're dealing with human nature, the answer is no to both questions.

1 comment:

Rob Marrs said...

Interesting as ever, Will.

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