The huge queue which stretched down Morrison Street seemed more akin to a sold-out concert than a party political gathering. The buoyancy and confidence was palpable as over 1,400 party members packed out the Edinburgh International Conference Centre for a sleek and tightly-managed event. As the lights dimmed and the room fell silent for a slick audio-visual display on the auditorium’s four-sided screen, it hit home just how far the SNP has come in such a short space of time. John Swinney’s declaration that this was the “largest manifesto launch Scotland has ever seen” was beyond dispute.
It was all a little bewildering for one long-time SNP member, who said he could recall an era when the party held these kind of events in somebody’s front room. He might have been exaggerating, but this launch was further confirmation of this party’s metamorphosis from recalcitrant outsiders into a new – and seemingly untouchable – political establishment.
With the party riding high in the polls and morale soaring, a little complacency among the hierarchy might be forgiveable. Yet the keynote speakers made absolutely clear their determination not to surrender any momentum. #BothVotesSNP was a prevailing message, as the party leadership attempted to counter any suggestions that opting for another pro-independence party on the list vote might be in the Yes movement’s best interests. Declaring that the SNP was focused on winning and not on “coming second”, first John Swinney and then Stewart Hosie put it starkly: There will only be an SNP government if people vote for it.
Well received though they were, Swinney and Hosie were just the warm-up act. This event was really all about Nicola Sturgeon, whose popularity exceeds even the SNP’s. Her smiling profile adorned the manifesto cover while an “I’m with Nicola” wristband doubled as the press pass. She remained hidden from view until her eventual appearance on stage was greeted with a rapturous standing ovation, and her later departure was met with a pack of eager autograph hunters.
It’s a curious phenomenon, and testament to Sturgeon’s everywoman appeal that, to a certain sections of the populace, the most powerful person in the country seems to represent both their pal and the height of celebrity. Indeed, if there were an abiding image to define contemporary Scotland, it might be Nicola Sturgeon taking a selfie with an excited admirer.
Reasons then for her to feel at ease introducing the “most ambitious manifesto the SNP has ever published”. Taking questions from the media, Sturgeon was in her element. She reiterated the SNP’s opposition to Trident renewal and gave an assurance that there would be no fracking in Scotland… if there were found to be any concerns over its environmental impact – a qualification that was somewhat drowned out by the triumphant cheers of her audience.
Predictably, though, it was her acknowledgement that she “would like to see” another referendum during the next Parliament that most enlivened her audience. However, Sturgeon knows the SNP cannot afford to ask that question again without being confident of victory, stressing the need to “earn the right to propose it”. Instead, it appears that the SNP favours an incremental approach to achieving its ultimate goal; by retaining trust and confidence through steady, competent governance.
As the Scottish Parliament approaches its 18th year, and about to come of age with a raft of new powers over tax and spending, the SNP will be hoping this provides the platform to make the final step to full independence.
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