One of the bulwarks of the near decade-long reign of Nicola Sturgeon as leader of the Scottish National Party was her ability to band together a broad coalition of older, traditional nationalists with a cohort of younger, left-leaning and passionate activists.
Yet, one of the most striking things about the first party conference held under her successor, Humza Yousaf, was the near complete absence of this young phalanx from the event this week in Aberdeen. In Yousaf, the SNP chose the youngest leader in UK politics. Yet his party appears to be ageing fast.
During the day, the lack of young blood at the SNP conference was painfully obvious at the half-empty venue near Aberdeen International Airport. At night it could be seen in the city centre of this prosperous oil industry hub. Aberdeen’s bars were quiet, its streets funereal.
The number of conference delegates was rumoured to have dipped well below 1,500, a fraction of the number when Sturgeon was at the height of her powers. The modest-sized hall at the complex where Yousaf delivered his closing speech on Tuesday was actually the conference media room in past years. The bigger main hall remained unused this year as the event downsized.
Sturgeon, who was arrested earlier this year during a police investigation into the SNP’s finances, made a brief appearance in Aberdeen. The frisson she sparked as she entered the complex foyer was a reminder of what the party has lost.
Yousaf, meanwhile, looked emotionally drained at several points. No wonder. His wife’s parents were trapped in Gaza when Israel started its bombing campaign against Hamas. Yousaf and his wife, Nadia El-Nakla, spoke movingly about their family’s fears for their loved ones’ safety. Yousaf touched on his sense of impotence at being able to do little to help them.
The issue of Israel and Palestine would have once rallied the SNP’s young progressives at its conference. But this year they were not there to be rallied. SNP delegates did, however, pass an emergency motion on Sunday condemning the Hamas attacks and calling for a humanitarian corridor for civilians in Gaza. El-Nakla told the hall that worry over her parents’ plight had made her heart “feel like it turned to stone”. Yousaf wiped away tears.
With the absence of its young social justice warriors, the SNP’s older members spent most of the conference discussing their favourite topic: how to gain independence. One cohort out in force was independence advocates from other global nationalist movements. Sinn Féin’s chairman, Declan Kearney, was spotted several times in the company of Mike Russell, president of the SNP. Rhun ap Iorwerth, leader of the Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru, gave a “fraternal address” from the conference main stage. A smattering of activists from other breakaway movements, including Quebec and Catalonia, also mingled among the delegates.
The mood was generally subdued but there were interludes from the torpor. There was a spirited debate in the main hall over the SNP’s strategy for convincing the UK government to give Scotland a new independence referendum. Land reformer Graeme McCormick told Yousaf that his party’s approach to the issue was like “flatulence in a trance”.
Meanwhile, at a fringe event on Monday organised by the academic think tank UK in a Changing Europe, some of the SNP’s older stalwarts thronged the room for a discussion on how Scotland could draft a constitution for an independent state. They were in restive mood.
Anand Menon, a respected King’s College academic (and an Englishman) stoked the annoyance of the crowd by suggesting that another independence vote could be “nasty and divisive” for Scotland. A clatter of older SNP women, all wearing matching party yellow cardigans, berated him from the floor. It would be a beautiful and calm debate, they insisted. Minutes later, they were up in arms again when Menon suggested that people in the UK had lost faith in politics. Not in Scottish politics, his critics cried.
“It might just be that I have less faith in human nature than you do,” said Menon.
Directly in front of me, an older woman wearing saltire earrings leant towards the man sitting next to her, presumably her husband or partner, and whispered: “Well he’s English. He’s got English human nature.” They giggled conspiratorially.
Towards the end of the event, Menon was further criticised by writer and independence activist Lesley Riddoch. She challenged his views on the public’s attitude to politics, as well as some remarks made by another panel member, Jess Sargeant, a constitutional expert and associate director of the Institute for Government. Like Menon, Sargeant is English.
As the event wrapped up, the woman in the saltire earrings leant towards the man again. “She bloody sorted them out, eh,” she said, nodding towards Riddoch, who had just finished sparring with Menon and Sargeant.
“How about that,” the man replied, with a twinkle in his eye. “Two English people telling us how Scotland’s constitution should be written.” The pair cackled again, revelling in their own facetiousness.
As they left the room, the woman with the saltire earrings held her beau’s arm and snuggled in as if they were going on a romantic walk. Yet the only place they had to go was out into the broad, cavernous, half-empty venue concourse, where the passion and fervour of the SNP’s absent young activists was sorely missed.