I couldn’t have been the only one who found it a little toe-curling to see SNP conference emblazoned with (SNP-branded) Obama-era ‘Yes We Can’ posters and banners this week. At least Donald Trump had the good grace (a concept usually alien to him) to wait 36 years and add the word Let’s before plagiarising Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign slogan.
However, all that discomfort evaporated when I realised it was actuallythe SNP who coined the term ‘Yes We Can’ front cover of their 1997 manifesto. If I learned nothing else from SNP Conference 2018 it was how keenly the then Senator for Illinois had observed Scottish party sloganeering of the 90s – essentially meaning that Scotland can now add ‘America’s first black president’ to its list of wold changing achievements.
As is the fashion, the SNP have also been trailing another two word slogan: “Hope and Optimism”. Although not quite “Strong and Stable”, the principle is the same – stick an easy to understand label on your Party and people will hopefully see something in it that appeals to them. While May’s Tories wanted to exude an image of iron resolution and unshakable stoicism (ha!), the SNP are keen to let their would-be supporters know that ‘the dream is still alive’ and remind them that only the SNP can deliver them to the sunlit uplands where their ambitions reside. At a time where a second referendum is neither off the table nor imminent, this is perhaps a sensible approach to keeping the rank and file happy.
In keeping with the Programme for Government last month, this conference is another attempt to paint a picture of a government getting on with the day job, delivering results that were promised while offering a flash of ankle that suggests there remains a rich untapped vein of new ideas. Mid-term and after more than a decade in power, the SNP remains keen to talk about its achievements. ‘Free tuition’ and ‘1,000 police officers’ are well worn records (literally and metaphorically) and the SNP have changed tack to claim that – thanks to the SNP – Scotland is a ‘world leader’ on a range of policy agendas. There is some evidence to support this, but is clear that the message has been shaped to demonstrate not only that the SNP can govern well, but also has the vision to make Scotland a successful independent nation – a ‘progressive beacon’ as it was once described by a former First Minister.
Like a supermassive black hole at the heart of a political solar system, Brexit influences everything – not least the future constitutional relations of the UK. For the SNP, there isn’t a huge amount of room for manoeuvre and, having failed to achieve independence in 2014, the SNP now has to proceed like a driver without insurance; very carefully and with no margin for error. Hitting another brick wall will afford no third chance to get back on the road. It is for that reason that Nicola Sturgeon and Mike Russell have set a cautious tone, with the latter comparing a premature indyref2 to “grabbing a lifeboat in choppy dangerous seas”. The SNP are waiting to see how the cards fall before making any concrete decisions – but are certainly beginning to set out their pro-EU stall and offering an idea of how they might proceed.
Away from the main hall, many of Scotland’s third sector organisations were exhibiting, congregating and pushing the change they wanted to see from the SNP. Guide Dogs Scotland were celebrating effective campaigning around the new Transport Bill which will prevent parking on pavements – allowing people with visual impairments to confidently and safely use pavements around the country. Likewise, British Heart Foundation had successfully helped pass a resolution at conference which will ensure compulsory CPR training in secondary schools. These approaches show the value in sustained and targeted campaigning of elected members, but also the opportunities that lie in engaging the delegates in the conference hall.
The impact the sector continues to have was perhaps best highlighted at SCVO and Charities Aid Foundation’s fringe event. The Deputy First Minister, John Swinney argued strongly that charities drive change in our society and reach people the public sector never could. He outlined the SNP and Scottish Government’s commitment to continuing to learn from the sector on a range of issues. Backing up this declaration was evidence from the new Charity Street Scotland report which should that 68% of people in Scotland believe charities are best placed to speak on behalf of disadvantaged people and to help influence government policies – showing charities remain among the most trusted institutions in our society.
The First Minister brought conference to a close on Tuesday afternoon with expanded commitments to Fair Work and a more inclusive economy (via procurement and government support). On a range of issues, she also took the opportunity to underline much of what her Ministers had said in the days previous: ‘We’ve done well. We’ve got more to give. Trust us to keep going.’ With elections and a referendum still some way off, these are likely to be messages we’ll hear over and again.