Two political parties held their annual conferences last month: the Ulster Unionists in Belfast, and the Scottish National Party in Perth. Both of these relatively minor parties of the UK face major regional battles in 2014.
But there the similarities appear to end. And there’s more to it than the obvious unionism of one and nationalism of the other.
Let’s start with the conferences themselves. Mike Nesbitt opened with a swipe at his rivals: “When we say never, never, never, we mean never, ever, ever.” He was referring to the DUP’s U-turn on a Peace Centre at the Maze Prison. The hall may have loved Nesbitt’s twist of Paisley’s signature words, but onlookers may not be so easily impressed.
Alex Salmond, meanwhile, got straight to the point. “We’ve travelled a significant way, but we still have a job to do.” He was addressing his party faithful, but was focused on the need to sell a positive message to the broader audience: the people of Scotland.
In fact, the audience couldn’t help but fix its eyes on its task ahead. A second-by-second countdown told the crowd that a mere 333 days and 15 hours stood between it and the all-important referendum. ‘Forward’ adorned the First Minister’s lectern. In an at-times theatrical address, the script did indeed match the set.
Mr Nesbitt’s point of reference was the past; Mr Salmond’s was the future.
Nesbitt did begin, however, to look forwards. The problem is that it can be difficult to take his words seriously.
He commendably proposed an international mental health facility to be based in Belfast. But while he emphasised, “this centre is for everyone,” he found time to remind delegates that republicans killed twice as many victims as loyalists. What does a ‘them and us’ numbers game add to his rhetoric on inclusion?
He commendably declared that “the future is about building a warm house for every section of our society.” But one lady’s sole applause of enthusiasm drew attention to the initial passivity of her fellow delegates.
He commendably told his party, “It’s time to get on the front foot,” but yet over the past year alone the UUP has embraced unionist unity in Mid Ulster, abandoned its designated days flag policy, and appeared to apologise for the Good Friday Agreement.
Perhaps Mike Nesbitt summed up his problem by declaring, with a touch of Bushism, “The future will replace the past as the place to be.” It sounds good, but means nothing.
The SNP Leader did himself indulge in a degree of romantic rhetoric. But, crucially, he did more than this: he spoke with obvious passion and authority.
Support for independence has flat-lined at around 25%. But in many ways that doesn’t matter. Scots still support the SNP as a party even though they look set to reject its flagship policy. When Salmond boldly declared, “Our time is now,” he was speaking about more than delivering an independent Scotland.
In the short-term the SNP will probably lose its ‘yes’ campaign, while the UUP may just cling on to its seat in the European Parliament.
In the long-term, however, the SNP will already be preparing to dust off any embarrassment from defeat to negotiate with a strong case for additional devolved powers for Scotland; it has the potential to re-position itself with a renewed purpose. For the UUP, questions over its long-term relevance won’t subside anytime soon.
Make your own mind up:
Mike Nesbitt’s 2013 Conference speech is available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b03gvszy/Ulster_Unionist_Party_Conference_Ulter_Unionist_Party_Conference_2013_Mike_Nesbitt/
You can find Alex Salmond’s address at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VfHEYMZhrzw