Who would have thought that the SNP would stage the most successful party conference of the entire season? Labour were at war with themselves, the Liberal Democrats shell-shocked ,and the Tories accident prone. The nationalists, by contrast, seemed united, confident, businesslike, purposeful.
Hasn’t always been so. I have been to too many nationalist conferences which were little more than an intoxicating shambles. Not this year. Salmond’s speech wasn’t a master class in political oratory, but it was a first class leader’s speech delivered with genuine conviction and a minimum of ad hominem abuse. . Retread he may be, absentee landlord even, but Salmond saw the occasion, and rose to it.
The policies on local hospitals, schools, student debt, renewable energy and business taxes were rolled out clearly and efficiently. True, they weren’t properly costed overall ( the Chancellor will do that for them) and it was a little rich for the SNP to start calling for higher drink prices after decades demanding cuts in whisky duty.
So, what has gone right? Is Tom Farmer’s money already reaching the parts Sean Connery’s could not reach? Has Cardinal Keith O’Brien put God on their side? Well, the SNP has been quietly getting its act together for some time now, and has been trying to formulate a coherent policy agenda instead of a post-independence wish list.
The experience of the Scottish Parliament has been upsetting in many ways for the nationalists. But the discipline of participating in a real legislative forum for seven and a half years has forced the SNP to become more professional and to accept the compromises involved in being a party that aspires to government.
I think the SNP has also come to terms in its heart that independence, as it traditionally conceived it, is an anachronism. Now, of course, no one says this publicly in the movement, and even privately, nationalists remain nationalists. But there is a much more realistic and incremental approach to national freedom, which is now shared by a wide range of non-SNP opinion in Scotland.
They have plenty of time, of course, to screw it up. The SNP are past masters at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. They have been much further ahead of Labour before in the polls, only to fall before the finish line. Their policies have yet to be tested in the heat of battle, and some – like the abolition of all student debt – look very expensive.
Moreover, Salmond’s remarkable statement, in his interview for the Sunday Herald, that “the largest party will always have the moral authority” to form the governing coalition, could be a hostage to fortune. No one seriously believes that the SNP can win a larger number of seats than Labour in May.
But the nationalist are on their way at last. Come in Mr Salmond, your time is up.