Review: Sturgeon plays to a packed house at the Hydro

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By Robert Given

I joined the SNP 24 years ago. I have carried the card ever since.

I liked them when it seemed very few people did. I canvassed with Nicola and remember Alex and Kenny from the poll tax campaign days.  In rock and roll terms I bought the first single, watched them play the student union. Now that they have double platinum-selling albums, play stadiums with an international fan base and have changed lead singer a couple of times, is it still possible to love the SNP?

To The Hydro!

The truth is some great bands are actually just great pub bands.  They have the complete sound and the right image, until you see them in a stadium scenario. Then you realise their limitations.  Could The SNP fill The Hydro? With bodies? Yes. With Atmosphere? Some of the time. With sophisticated political thinking and strategy? Well let’s see…

First up, the percussion samba band Bloco Yes didn’t even try to tackle the daunting 12,000 seat venue – they never took to the stage but weaved their way around the floor of the stalls; an astute tactical move. They built some atmosphere where there was none. They reminded me of She-boom, the lesbian percussion group of choice for the Left demonstration of the 90s.

The rest of the musical programme included some minor talents who played a part in the indyref campaign –  the charming Lou Hickey and the “traditional” Trybe and Red Hot Chili Pipers. Edinburgh indie band Blank Canvas are not sure whether they are The Bunnymen or The Smiths, and made either a brave or naive attempt to rock the crowd, many of whom probably bought their antecedents’ masterworks on coloured vinyl three decades ago.

Eddi Reader came and went after a single song, but with a wonderful eccentric performance that may just have met the challenge of the venue. The Scottish hip-hop act Stanley Odd’s most famous song Son I Voted Yes should be put in a time capsule dated September 19 2014. However, “You say… I say…” sing-along chants proved too much for the audience. No offence, but Stanley’s never a stadium act.

FLAGS

And so on with the rest of the froth: the flags handed out everywhere; the thousands of big foam pointy-fingered hands for pointing at something, but it was never clear what; the three huge screens with the Party’s chosen image of itself – 220 small pictures of ordinary Scottish folk (five of them non-white – yes I DID count them during one of the more turgid musical moments, and I am not ashamed of to admit it).  And the clever updates of the latest running total of party membership – twice in a two-hour event!

So what was left after that but the politics?

Three people took to the stage – first, the newly retired, longest-serving First Minister, Alex “pension-to-charity, never-take-a-seat-in-The-Lords” Salmond.  The applause, thunderous; the ovation, standing.

I joined the SNP because of Alex. He is, and only the most curmudgeonly or blindly sectarian would deny it, the Scottish politician of his generation.

He has moved the other parties like a sheepdog through the whole devolution process towards the likely end that is Scottish independence, and often they did not appear to realise they were being steered at all, never mind where they were headed.

He has cracked the UK state and constitution along its fault lines. It cannot be restored. Others possessed his keen analysis – most obviously Tam Dalyell. But no one had his tactical nous, will or spirit of adventure. When BBC Scotland journalists or Johann Lamont are angered that their dear homes at Pacific Quay or Scottish Labour HQ are run as branch of offices of some bloated misunderstanding, unsympathetic domineering London bosses they have fallen in line with the thinking that Salmond and the SNP have been seeding for decades – that Scotland should stand on its own.

When it comes, the speech is vintage Salmond.  The key points are a joke at the expense of other political parties; Patriotism, Scotland’s boxing golds from Charlie Flynn and Josh Taylor, Internationalism  – astutely suggesting that Freedom Come All Ye replace the frankly embarrassing Flower of Scotland; Threats to Westminster about “feet to the fire”, the vow (now construed as home rule, nothing less) and a vision of a better Scotland. It’s  the kind of speech he has given for 30 years. As an ex-First Minister its lack of real meat and policy is as apt as it was in the years of opposition. He is one of few politicians who was popular after 7 years in office. His opponents will never forgive him.

Next the charming and smooth Stewart Hosie MP. The new deputy leader gives a competent speech focusing on the economic failures of austerity. It is an opposition speech with little in terms of detailed alternative, but the comforting assertion that punishing the poor is wrong.

NEW LEADER

Finally the warm-ups are over and the MC introduces Nicola Sturgeon, our new leader. The build up has included an assertion from Salmond that Sturgeon is the political talent of her generation.  The scale of the challenge she faces is the extent of the expectation: Sturgeon who moves deftly between talking about movement and party. It is a clever move. This is where her challenge lies.

For the record she is not the natural orator that Salmond is. She lacks his physical bruising presence, she may slightly stumble over a joke about Lib Dems in phone boxes, but she is competent and she can easily play this arena, this crowd. But Nicola will need more than all of this.

Her problem lies in that line between movement and party. Just as the Labour Party always struggled to meet the expectation of the wider movement and particularly its organised structures in the unions, likewise it is hard to see the SNP in power delivering the radical agenda of the Yes  movement.

Many of these people want equalities and ‘fairness’ that cannot be delivered within the powers given to the Scottish Parliament  or the money it is given or can raise.  Perhaps some wealth distribution is possible under further devolution, but do the SNP have the will to implement it when it may lose votes and popularity? In terms of big ticket items free education, more free childcare and more money for the NHS is promised – so what is to be cut in the forthcoming years of austerity?

Managing change and expectations is a problem all national liberation movements have faced – from Nkrumah to Mandela and the ANC. In truth most fail to deliver on the dearest wishes of their supporters.

However, Scotland is not post-colonial Africa. The key may in quickly delivering “Indyref 2”.  There is a door opened in Sturgeon’s speech when she talks not of being given powers, but of taking them. It is one of several deft rhetorical touches that signal that she may well possess Salmond’s nous. Here’s hoping.

We all left satisfied that we had witnessed  a little piece of history and had attended what in the Sixties was called a “happening”, that most essential element  of contemporary culture, an “event”.

Some people had  soft wet eyes, some people smiles. Just two months after that No vote, having witnessed astonishing opinion polls and an unparalleled boost to party membership – now 92,000 people – everyone seemed quietly happy.

Was it only me that felt a little foreboding?