At the SNP Conference

Peter Geoghegan

At 5 p.m. on 18 September 2014 the Scottish National Party had 25,642 members. Last Saturday afternoon Nicola Sturgeon announced that membership was 102,143 and rising. After the referendum, it was thought that the new intake – widely assumed to be more leftwing – might undermine the nationalists’ discipline. But there was little discord among the 3000 people at Glasgow’s SECC last weekend for the SNP spring conference.

Resolutions on all-women shortlists, land reform and the Chagos Islands passed almost unanimously. Sturgeon pledged that her party would block David Cameron’s attempts to return to Downing Street. She said that the SNP would supply the ‘backbone and guts’ needed to force Labour to construct a radical post-election government. Trident would go; austerity would slow; the minimum wage would rise by £2. The loudest cheer came for a call to scrap the House of Lords.

If polls are accurate, the SNP is on course to win big across Scotland on 7 May. Sturgeon – the only political leader in the UK with a positive approval rating – joked that the polls gave her ‘altitude sickness’. (The party’s previous best showing at Westminster, in October 1974, was 11 seats.) ‘No constituency is off limits for the SNP in this election,’ she said.

The party is profiting from the battle for Middle England, too. The Conservatives – less than six months after pleading with Scots not to go – accuse the SNP of plotting to ‘sabotage the democratic will of the British people’ by refusing to support the Tories if they hold the balance of power. What does David Cameron think political union means?

The Tories have gleefully depicted Ed Miliband in Alex Salmond’s pocket in an attempt to woo swithering voters in marginal English seats. Alienating Scots isn’t a problem, as they don’t vote Conservative. Meanwhile, falling oil prices will put paid to independence. The logic looks neat but doesn’t take into account the extent of political change – and polarisation – in post-referendum Scotland. Conservative rhetoric makes the SNP's case for it: Scotland and England are separate political cultures. The nationalist answer to this is another vote on Scotland's sovereignty.

Labour, for its part, is similarly cut adrift. As Sturgeon was calling for a ‘progressive alliance’ with parties across the UK, Scottish Labour tweeted: ‘In 1979, the SNP helped secure 18 years of Tory rule. Do you remember?’ Saturday was the 36th anniversary of the SNP’s support for a vote of no confidence that led to Callaghan’s downfall. But Scots have forgiven the SNP for their part in bringing Thatcher to power. The current Labour mantra – ‘Vote SNP, Get Tory’ – hasn’t struck a chord with voters.

I spoke with some delegates drinking outside the ClydeBuilt Bar before Sturgeon’s speech. ‘The SNP is the only party I’ve ever voted for,’ Ross told me. ‘I couldn’t vote Labour after the Iraq war.’ He’s 28, with a thick red beard and a tattoo on his neck. It was his first party conference.

Martin, 48, was an SNP member in his student days at Glasgow University. Sturgeon was a year ahead of him. After graduating he drifted away from the party ‘until the referendum campaign came along’. Now his entire family are SNP members. ‘Even my mum. It’s unbelievable!’ Would he like to see the SNP in coalition on Westminster after 7 May? He shook his head. ‘No, no, there are no UK parties we would go into government with.’ Another Conservative administration would suit the SNP fine – as long as they can avoid blame for bringing it to power.

The party is cresting the anti-establishment wave in British politics – a remarkable feat given that they have been in power in Holyrood for almost eight years. On Saturday, Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, the SNP candidate for the most marginal Labour seat in Scotland, received thunderous applause as she railed against the Tories’ and Labour’s ‘reckless’ support for Trident renewal. She has previously stood as a Conservative election candidate but has denied press reports that she was also a Labour Party member.

Increasingly, the SNP faces little substantial opposition in Scotland. But a party with 100,000 members in a country of five million needs to be able to admit when it’s wrong, too. ‘If we don’t then it’s a cult,’ one long-term SNP activist told me on Saturday. ‘Then we’re back in Albania.’

For Ann McPherson such worries were for another day. She joined the SNP in 1966, when she was 24. ‘The mood for long-term members is amazed, energized hugely enthusiastic,’ she told me in the queue for Sturgeon’s speech. Behind us, middle-aged men walked past with plastic bags from the nearby Scottish Golf Show 2015. Parents were taking their children to the afternoon performance of Disney on Ice. ‘But we are not over-confident. We don’t want to take anything for granted.’