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A party without a leadership, a leadership without a party

The NATO vote has destroyed careers and brought many in the SNP to the verge. But they must all be patient – today was a giant victory for principle and for the left. Stay – defend those who made you proud today.

I’ll tell you what it looked like for two hours in a conference hall in Perth. It looked very like a party without a leadership and a leadership without a party. For anyone who hasn’t picked it up yet, the NATO resolution was passed by a majority of 48 per cent to 52 per cent. It was the most catastrophic victory I can remember and the most effective defeat. And now for the consequences.

The first thing to say is that in almost 20 years of going to party conferences professionally and much of the 20 years before that spent at them as a child, I cannot ever remember a situation in a main hall where a member of the leadership was loudly booed by the delegates. So much so he even acknowledged it. This is not how these things work. I cannot remember – ever – a leadership so far out of touch with its own members. The leadership resolution couldn’t buy a cheer from the audience. Or rather, it bought one but the price to be paid for it is deep.

There were hands raised to vote as if possessed by demons. Eyes and faces screamed out ‘I don’t believe this, I don’t believe this’ but hands worked all by themselves. I saw people deliver speeches they didn’t believe. They couldn’t have – no-one in the hall believed it. After the third person suggested that if Scotland was in NATO we could disarm the world, credulity just snapped. There could be few people who heard what transpired and be convince by the arguments. The booing, it seemed to me, was not planned, not even quite political. It broke out at a point when the intelligence of delegates had been insulted just too much. It sounded (to me) like a scream from an audience that wanted the respect of not being told things no-one believed.

Careers have been destroyed. From the conversations I have heard since, the general view is that those who spoke for NATO on the platform who rely on a party vote to be placed on a list may be looking for a new career. The same may well be true of a number of others who didn’t speak but voted. It makes me personally sad – personal friends sold out today. And they too will pay a price, because they have become irrelevant. We now know that there is no circumstance in which they will not dance how, when and where they are told to dance. If anyone had told them before this debate that this would secure their careers they were mis-sold. They have lost their credibility. You don’t get that back.

Many others will have to answer. The members of Asians For Independence who were called to a personal audience with Alex Salmond and then voted for NATO air strikes in Pakistan will have to answer to their community. Likewise for more than one MSP. And above all, it seems sad to me that the one cheer the NATO supporters did get was bought by rolling Kenny McAskill out to do his conference darling thing. What people said to me afterwards was not kind about it. And nor should they be. It was a pitifully wasteful cause on which to expend the remains of your affection with many.

But – and it is a simply enormous but – this was in many ways a triumphant day for the left in Scotland. The party of government will be in no doubt what it has done. Its party – mainly a party of the left – stood up today. But for 14 votes it would have won. The party seemed to pass from one set of hands to another. Just as sad as the demise of those who sold out (and whom everyone knows sold out) is the encouragement from those who didn’t. A queue of MSPs gave me some hope about the future of Scottish politics. John Finnie, Jean Urqhart, Christina McKelvie, Rob Gibson and perhaps above all Jamie Hepburn, spoke for the SNP against its leadership. They looked awfully like a future worth having (well, perhaps Jean and Rob look a bit less like the future…). It has been a long time since I was really proud of much that happens in Scottish politics. Moments, glimpses, in-comparisons yes. People will tell you it was the best political debate in a long, long time in Scotland. Almost. Half of it was, the other half was craven establishment politics.

So I come away enthused. Not only a generation of principle willing to stand up to the poor leadership it has had over this issue but another generation of promise outside. The young organisers of the Radical Independence Conference who stood outside in the rain (along with many not-so-young activists) and pricked the conscience of a party loosing its way give me even more hope.

But what now? Well, there are bound to be consequences. This is the most wounded I can ever remember a political party. I hugged more than one person in tears on the way out of the hall (and they weren’t all women…). I think six people individually came up to me and asked out loud if they should stay in the party. There is a strong mood for a walk-out. But they shouldn’t. Today it was proved that it was their party. It is just being driven in all the wrong directions. If they stay, if they organise with the people who stood tall today, there is a hope for the future of the SNP.

And then what of the leadership? Alex Salmond has made two catastrophic errors of judgement in his political career. The first was to throw his lot in with the fundamentalists who forced the SNP to oppose devolution and stay out of the Constitutional Convention. That consigned the SNP to the political backwaters for a decade. This is the second. It would be daft to claim to know what it means yet, but you can’t split your own party like that, with so much pain and resentment. The SNP is no longer the only party of independence in Scotland. I might be wrong, but I don’t believe there is a rhetorical flourish clever enough to heal the wounds of the party in the leader’s speech tomorrow.

What the leadership did not offer was a single convincing answer to the question about hypocrisy they will now face from today until the referendum. Where I stand just now, I think the SNP just lost the referendum. They think this has been clever but it hasn’t. People can sniff a sell out and a party divided will win nothing. Many people have said to me ‘Alex and Nicola can delivery their own leaflets”. That is how they have motivated the Yes Campaign. If they lose, Salmond’s leadership must be untenable after this. Can Nicola redeem herself? Time will tell. Would the SNP now survive in its current form if it limps through the referendum campaign like it currently is? Again, only time will tell.

But this was a day of triumph for principe and for left politics. NATO supporters did everything short of kidnap to win this. And to all intents and purposes they were beat by a rag-tag band of barely-organised people of principle who drew a line. One way or another, the days of dragging an unwilling SNP to the right are over. It is a shame that this lesson had to be learned in this way.

If anyone thinks this is over, they are wrong.

Robin McAlpine