YOU can tell there’s an SNP conference around the corner, because Jim Sillars is making headlines.

The party’s former deputy is a perennial thorn in the leadership’s flesh, but his observations are always worth reading, even if you disagree with him.

His support for, and confidence in, Brexit is a bone of contention for many. But when it comes to the mechanics of the SNP, and with his remarkable memory still intact at 80, Mr Sillars can offer a long view, a keen analysis and bracing ideas. A glance at the agenda for the three-day conference starting in Glasgow shows these are still badly needed.

Take the welcome message from Nicola Sturgeon. Since the SNP last gathered en masse, it has lost a third of its MPs. It waved goodbye to half a million votes in June’s election. The SNP leader’s decision to push for a second referendum was central to that setback. Instead of advancing the independence cause it locked in opposition to it. But neither her big call or the fallout gets a mention.

Instead, the sole electoral reference is a hurrah for the SNP forming Glasgow’s minority administration in May. “It is already delivering progress,” says Ms Sturgeon, shoehorning in the official buzzword of the conference.

The SNP’s recent annual political report also failed to mention that fateful referendum decision. Nor is independence being debated in the main hall. Instead it is relegated to a solitary fringe meeting.

No post-mortem, no introspection, no learning. It’s a conference with a hole in it. One SNP fringe even invites activists to see “the evidence-base for the SNP’s successful campaign techniques”, ignoring the dog’s dinner of recent months.

“They’re in denial,” says one party veteran of the leadership. “If we’d lost another five or ten seats, which could easily have happened, Nicola’s position would have been unsustainable. If it wasn’t for the Tories being in such a mess, she’d be under much more scrutiny. Instead we’ll be talking about Brexit and Catalonia, about independence somewhere else not here.”

After ticking off a list of achievements - many a dusty decade old - Ms Sturgeon’s introduction goes on: “With the world changing around us, it’s time for a fresh policy agenda. Our programme for government is designed to take advantage of the resources and talent Scotland has in abundance.”

That last sentence would probably make Mr Sillars wince. “Our programme for government.”

Whose programme for government exactly? The leadership’s. Ms Sturgeon, her ministers and civil servants. Not the membership’s programme. Not the infantry’s plan, the generals’.

It’s very odd that a party which puts such store by the sovereignty of the people is itself ruled by an oligarchy - practically a monarchy.

Mr Sillars claims that a “cult of personality” grew up around Alex Salmond and then transferred to Ms Sturgeon, with the result that SNP conferences are now vapid rallies.

The party used to have a vice-chair for policy, but that role went years ago. The policy-making apparatus is derelict. Decisions are top-down, not bottom-up.

But as Mr Sillars also says, it’s not just the leadership’s fault. Power is a miser. Don’t expect it to share. It’s also down to the membership for joining the cult and being so passive.

This seems doubly strange given the flood of new members after the 2014 referendum. The party grew almost five fold to 120,000 in a few months. Many were party novices, and you’d expect them to take time to learn the ropes. Many were also armchair members, adding little more than a monthly direct debit.

Nevertheless, there ought to be enough experienced and active members to start making a difference to the way the party works, to start making a fuss.

There is certainly enough unhappiness out there about the lack of direction from the top. A few months ago, Ms Sturgeon told activists she had a “cast-iron mandate” and a “triple-lock” for a referendum. Now she isn’t even sure if it’s happening this side of the 2021 election. There are reports of deep frustration at the grassroots, of dwindling branch memberships, of people cutting previously generous direct debits to the bare minimum.

Without its central animating objective, without the fire of independence in its belly, the SNP is entering a state of “atrophy”, one senior member tells me.

There are small signs of rebellion. One conference resolution from the Leith branch notes meetings are thinly attended relative to the party’s size, and greater participation could help with “policy making, activism and electoral results”. It suggests “paid regional organisers to help coordinate and support local campaign efforts”. In other words, more devolved control and a break from a widely unloved SNP HQ.

It’s hardly Spartacus, but it’s a start. If SNP members are unhappy with where the party is going, or not going, they need to do more than grumble at their local Yes group.

They need to stand up and do something. Mr Sillars says the Yes movement should cut its “deadly tie” to the SNP, and not be bound to its electoral fate. It could always try to take it over instead.