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banner Thursday, 21 September, 2000, 09:40 GMT 10:40 UK
Filling the room at the top
Brian Taylor, SNP graphic
Brian Taylor: "Temperatures will rise"
By BBC Scotland political editor Brian Taylor

The annual conference of the Scottish National Party is under way n Inverness and as always speakers range from the enthralling to the enervating.

Topics range from the fuel duty crisis, education, the elderly, council spending and the preservation of Scotland's historic battlefields.

There will be cries of determined loyalty, occasional mutterings of discontent, challenges to standing orders and fun and frivolity on the fringe.

The temperature will rise as the tempers shorten.

And on Saturday - towards the close of the entire affair - the conference will elect a new party leader.

Alex Neil
Alex Neil: Leadership contender
It is not that the election is an afterthought for the SNP, simply that activists in this party - perhaps even ahead of others - like to keep leaders in their place.

This will not be a grand coronation - even for those nationalists who adhere to party policy of retaining a scaled-down, modernised monarchy in the new model Scotland.

The post under contest is that of National Convener (strictly speaking, the individual who chairs the National Executive and co-ordinates the wider party).

The outcome will be announced alongside elections for other party posts.

Again strictly, the National Convener need not be a parliamentarian - either in London or Edinburgh.

Cheer, clap and sing

Indeed, one of the contenders for deputy leader is standing on a platform of keeping some degree of control out of the hands of the parliamentary bloc.

I would not want to give the impression that nationalists are churlish towards their leaders.

Quite the contrary, they cheer, they clap, they sing.

Yet, somehow, the SNP - a party which wants to break the current political mould in the UK - remains inherently distrustful of political power, of leadership tenure within the current system.

Local branches guard their own influence, party activists resent any suggestion that policy may be made over their heads. And, above all, the party always contrives to find some way of restraining its leaders - whether through a curmudgeonly executive or awkward fellow office-bearers or tricky resolutions at party gatherings.

Conference agenda
The conference runs until Saturday
And, so the party purist will tell you, there is more to the Inverness conference than the election of a replacement for Alex Salmond.

In reality, of course, this is a conference building to Saturday's culmination.

Mr Salmond has led the SNP for 10 years - a decade, he says, in which it has gone from being a minuscule party at Westminster to the main opposition party in the new Scottish Parliament.

He says it had always been his intention to stand down after 10 years.

The alternative, he says, would be to lead the SNP through the next General Election, the Scottish Parliamentary contest in three years time and, he believes, an independence referendum thereafter.

Mr Salmond says it is time to hand over now when - to borrow a phrase from Harold Wilson - people are asking why you are going rather than why you are staying.

Nationalist history

He has his critics - in politics, who does not - but Mr Salmond has fostered a sense of maturity in the SNP.

And, of course, it was under his leadership that the nationalists set aside caveats and campaigned all-out in the referendum for a devolved Scottish Parliament - which was duly delivered.

Mr Salmond's substantial place in nationalist history is assured.

As to a replacement, the choice for the SNP is between Alex Neil, the policy vice-convener, and John Swinney, the present deputy leader.

The two offer policy differences - as BBC News Online Scotland's webcast interview explored.

But the real gap lies in strategy.

John Swinney
John Swinney: Leadership contender
Mr Swinney believes in developing from the relative success of the present devolved Parliament, arguing - as did Mr Salmond - that Scotland will naturally want more.

He believes the SNP must work constructively and positively within devolution.

Further, he is the architect of the policy whereby the SNP would hold a referendum in Scotland to gain a mandate before negotiating for independence from London.

Previously, the party had regarded their victory at an election, either to Westminster or the Scottish Parliament, as a sufficient mandate.

By contrast, while Mr Neil believes that the party must be seen to work hard within the present set-up, it should also condemn more sharply the flaws within devolution.

He is inclined to view the present parliament as a sop to placate the Scots.

He rejects the pre-negotiation referendum, arguing that the nationalists would lose a ballot in such circumstances as they would not be able sufficiently to counter fears over Scotland's financial future.

Independence support

When it is pointed out to him that the Swinney strategy was endorsed by the party in a vote, he says the policy was "bounced" upon the SNP.

The two, therefore, represent polarised approaches to nationalism - or, more precisely, to the strategic advancement of nationalism.

Both firmly support independence - although it should be said that thinkers within the SNP are quietly reconsidering the definition of independence in the circumstances of an independent Europe.

Few strategists now talk in terms of Braveheart-style freedom - the dual objective rather is maximal fiscal autonomy and a distinct voice in Europe.

That issue of Scotland in Europe will feature at the conference on Thursday - with a resolution confirming that the party favours a confederal Europe rather than a grand superstate.

That is in line with current party thinking.

The SNP is broadly Europhile but is growing, if anything, more cautious, anxious not to offer a blank cheque to the notion of European integration.

Suspended treasurer

Other significant debates include resolutions on Friday and Saturday which attempt to commit the party to significant social spending pledges.

On Friday, too, the party may confront - in private session - the aftermath of an earlier row.

The treasurer, Ian Blackford, was suspended after arguments over the control of party funds. His interim successor Kenny MacAskill reported this week that the party was back in the black.

Mr Blackford has repeatedly attacked Mr Salmond, claiming that his job was made impossible by actions at headquarters.

That will not remotely overshadow, however, the leadership election.

Mr Salmond can expect an ecstatic response to his closing address as party leader on Friday.

Then it all begins again on Saturday under new management.

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PARTY CONFERENCES

The voting system the SNP will use to elect a new leader
The vote for SNP leader

See also:

19 Sep 00 | SNP
Conference agenda
18 Sep 00 | Scotland
SNP hopefuls clash on independence
18 Sep 00 | SNP
Full webcast transcript
01 Sep 00 | Scotland
SNP prepares for Salmond swan song
04 Aug 00 | Scotland
SNP leadership contest: Analysis
04 Aug 00 | Scotland
Two-horse race for SNP top job
26 Jul 00 | Scotland
John Swinney: My message
26 Jul 00 | Scotland
Alex Neil: My message
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