I am campaigning for the SNP in this general election. As I am still locked away finishing my book for 95% of my waking moments, that campaigning has been desultory so far, but will shortly be more lively. I am vain enough to think that my talents stretch beyond canvassing and delivering leaflets, but as the SNP show no desire to ask me to do anything else, that is what I shall be doing.
I did however emerge from my cocoon at the weekend to attend the SNP conference. Here are some very brief thoughts.
Firstly, it was great to be at the conference speech of the leader of a mainstream party, in which she pledged to no replacement for Trident, no more benefit cuts and the abolition of the House of Lords. The last got the biggest cheer of the whole Conference. I was wondering just how many people in England would like the chance to vote for the SNP.
I had a counterbalancing doubt at the back of my mind about this enthusiasm for – as Nicola Sturgeon put it – “Improving” the UK. I don’t want to improve the Union, I want to end it. Power has a fatal attraction to politicians, and I think I detected that exercising power in the United Kingdom is today gleaming brighter in the dreams of some professional SNP politicians than is independence for Scotland.
The other thing I did not like was the machine politics and management of it all. The entire first day there was not a motion that was passed other than by acclaim, and there was not a single speech against anything, though there were a couple of attempts at referral back. The only item permitted on to the conference agenda, in closed session on day 2, that was in the least likely to cause controversy was the adoption of all women shortlists – and the only reason that was on the agenda was that the leader made it abundantly plain she wanted it. I incline to the view that as a short term measure it is justified, but I abstained because I did not like what I saw of the way it was managed.
It was the only debate the leader sat through, and it was very plain she was watching carefully how people were voting. There was a definite claque of paid party apparatchiks and organised feminists occupying front centre of the hall. There was a strong suspicion, voiced by Christine Graham, that deliberately weak and left field speakers had been chosen against women shortlists. And for the vote, party functionaries including Angus Robertson and Ian McCann stood at the side of the hall very ostensibly noting who voted which way and making sure that the payroll vote performed. I was right next to where Angus Robertson stood as he did this. He moved into position just before the vote, made it very obvious indeed what he was doing, and left immediately after. I found myself regarding the prospect of a whole raft of new MPs, their research assistants and secretaries providing 200 more payroll votes, as depressing.
Coming back to the plus side, I was delighted by the content of many of the resolutions passed, including on the right to return of the Chagos islanders and the inequity of financial tests used by the Home Office to keep immigrant families apart. I left pretty convinced that if we can get the abolition of the monarchy, leaving NATO, and an independent Scotland abandoning the pound sterling onto the agenda, we will pass them. But how to get past the agenda gatekeepers? The party is completely sewn up.
I had intended to speak against the new standing orders for Westminster MPs, which contain eleven draconian clauses on whipping and discipline, as against three more liberal ones in the old standing orders. I confess I did not get to speak because the item was called at 9.05 on Sunday morning, on the morning the clocks went forward, and I was commuting from Edinburgh. The spirit was willing but the flesh is pretty knackered.