That fine Irish poet WB Yeats has always been highly quotable in a political context.

Alex Salmond indulged on Friday afternoon in his strangely underwhelming valedictory address, arguing post-referendum Scotland had "changed, changed utterly". It was a quotation from Yeats's first overtly political poem, Easter, 1916, and perhaps a provocative suggestion that Autumn, 2014, was the Scottish equivalent, with independence - as in Ireland - bound to follow within a few years.

Mr Salmond also echoed Yeats's fascination with the transformation of ordinary Irish citizens into revolutionaries by arguing that if Westminster "reneged" on its promises then Scotland would take matters into its "own democratic hands".

But he didn't use - perhaps for obvious reasons - the same poem's line about a "terrible beauty" being born, although there was a strange political attraction to the SNP's Perth conference at the weekend.

Given this apathetic age, any mass gathering of politicos ought to be applauded, while it's difficult not to be impressed at a party handling defeat so well. That said, for all this talk of political engagement, the conference was also the usual politics-free zone: platitudinous speeches, anodyne motions, minimal policy debate and - strikingly - no attempt to analyse the referendum result.

Mr Salmond's plodding speech, meanwhile, lacked the Yeatsian eloquence of which he's more than capable, instead offering up his usual blend of ad hominem attacks and corny soundbites. "Consistency," he charged, "doesn't come easily to the Unionist parties", which was a bit rich given his inconsistency on the referendum being a once-in-a-generation event.

But of course Mr Salmond could have recited pages from a telephone directory and still earned a standing ovation - it was that sort of conference. The word hubris kept springing to mind, fuelled by discussion of a Yes Alliance, "winning" the next Westminster election and the usual talk of the SNP holding the balance of power in a hung Parliament. The outgoing SNP leader even told an interviewer he could have a go at governing the north of England.

Any other political party indulging itself in this way would rightly be criticised for breathtaking arrogance, whatever opinion polls indicate. Thankfully, Nicola Sturgeon struck a more ecumenical tone in her speech on Saturday afternoon. It was also long on substance, a welcome departure from the Salmond-like preference for style.

Earlier, she had spoken of not berating "those who disagree with us", which I took to be a subtle repudiation of her predecessor. And although it took a while, the new SNP leader at least tried to pitch her message beyond Perth Concert Hall, although I remain confused by her line on Labour, which was simultaneously depicted as a spent force and a party worth propping up following the next UK general election. Talk about mixed messages.

But in terms of carving out distinctive territory for herself, Saturday's speech was well-crafted and slickly delivered. It also hinted at a meaty legislative programme in a couple of weeks' time which, if realised, will represent another welcome break from the don't-upset-the-horses approach of the past few years. The SNP still have an overall majority at Holyrood, it's about time they used it.

There was no clarification, meanwhile, as to Mr Salmond's future intentions, although it's perfectly clear he won't be resigning his part in what Yeats called "the casual comedy". And if he does rejoin the Westminster elite next May it is difficult to envisage the party's elder statesman deferring to Messrs Hosie and Robertson at group meetings: an alternative SNP power base would be the inevitable consequence of Mr Salmond's second coming.

Perth also demonstrated Labour, no matter who ends up leading it, will struggle to regain control of the political agenda. Indeed, Ms Sturgeon's conference speech was a reminder she fully intends to finish them off once and for all. And if she ditches her party's pledge to cut Corporation Tax while committing to a 50p tax rate next April then the new leaderene might very well succeed.

Jim Murphy et al have been busy filling journalists' inboxes with missives on everything from gender inequality to "something for nothing" revisionism. Yet until Labour re-establishes itself as a credible force much of that will end up in trash.

"Things fall apart;" another memorable line from Yeats goes, "the centre cannot hold." Inevitably the Smith Commission will weaken the centre of the existing, slightly wobbly, British Constitution and the Unionist parties also have to figure out how to handle two forthcoming elections (UK and Holyrood) and an in/out EU referendum. Each one will serve to revive the Scottish Question and Labour et al will need some more convincing lines as to why it's worth sticking with the status quo.

There are challenges too for the SNP, no matter how buoyant they appear. Another thing that struck me at conference were thousands of what Yeats called "vivid faces", new members with high - perhaps quixotic - expectations of their new party. Already there are frustrations, irritation that the leadership no longer seems terribly keen on a Radical Independence Convention, unease that Ms Sturgeon's leadership might mean more warm words about big business.

In RF Foster's new book Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland, 1890-1923, he writes of Ireland's cultural activists prior to the creation of the Free State, observing the distance between the aims and ideals of the young revolutionaries and the constrictions - social, cultural and religious - of the Ireland they ended up with. Indeed, Yeats believed revolutionaries seemed soulless when they had "one purpose alone".

In 1916 the UK had put Irish Home Rule on hold, promising to revisit it once the First World War had been won. London's response to the Uprising, however, tipped the balance of Irish opinion towards a clean break rather than a devolutionary compromise. I wonder if Lord Smith and his Westminster sponsors know (and more importantly understand) their 20th-century history?

I mentioned hubris, which of course means pride before a fall. If the SNP, having set a target of 30 seats, secures only a dozen MPs next May then it falls into an old self-made trap - think the local government elections in 2012 and the Euro contest of earlier this year - of mismanaging expectations so a good result appears disappointing.

Such an approach was very much the old SNP leader's style, and one that's subject to the law of diminishing returns. Another question posed by Yeats in Easter, 1916 was whether "excess of love" for one's country might end up bewildering patr iots. Understandably, there was little such concern in Perth at the weekend, although the guardians of this new, uncertain political era would do well to err on the side of caution.