The SNP, it hardly needs saying, is now a very big party in a small country. The conference is bustling and busy with the stuff of government. Fringes earnestly debate the details of social policies: I’m writing this from the back of a packed Prince’s Trust session with deputy first minister John Swinney, where worthy questions are being asked about the operation of the apprenticeship levy.
But although the party finds itself responsible for just about everything that is going on in Scotland these days, this is only by virtue of the unexpected hegemony it has achieved since 2011, and even more particularly since the independence referendum two years ago. At heart, the SNP is not a party of everything, it is a party of nationalism. And when you catch the delegates chatting between the worthy policy discussions it is, as often as not, about the post-Brexit potential for independence.
Nicola Sturgeon’s “announcement” that draft legislation for a fresh referendum will soon be published has set the conference alight, even though it changes virtually nothing.
For a start, it is something she had already promised to do. For another thing, it is draft and not real legislation, a way of keeping options open and “the independence story” rolling forward, rather than a hard and fast pledge to make anything happen. And for a final thing, it is legally speaking really quite clear that Holyrood cannot legislate for a referendum that could force independence without Westminster’s blessing: the constitution is reserved matter.
None of these caveats, however, are dampening the buzz. Indeed, walking into the conference this morning, I got chatting to two suited young activists—Ian and Alan, both solicitors practising in Edinburgh—who were in excited debate about whether the sort of procedural footsie that Theresa May is trying to keep the House of Commons out of the Brexit decision could also work for Holyrood. Some Brexiteers claim that May can revoke the UK’s signature on the Treaty of Rome through Royal Prerogative. So, their argument ran, maybe Scotland can revoke its signature on the Act of Union.
Arcane stuff for young men to be getting excited about, but if…