We are accustomed to seeing the British parties mired in financial scandal. From MP’s expenses to tales of “dirty money” financing the Leave campaign to the currently growing furore about pandemic-related contracts, it seems there’s never a time when the British parties aren’t in the shadow of one allegation of fiscal shenanigans or another. Except, perhaps, when they’re in opposition. But that’s only because being Her Majesty’s loyal opposition doesn’t offer the same opportunities for (allegedly) dipping the till. Out of government, the British parties generally have to make do with sex scandals or some ill-considered social media comments about how the Holocaust was all just a horrible misunderstanding.
We are not accustomed to the SNP being the subject of allegations of financial misconduct. Not that the British establishment hasn’t tried very hard indeed to dig up some dirt. Every cupboard the SNP has or ever did have has been repeatedly and thoroughly ransacked in a desperate search for skeletons. No more than the odd bone has been turned up and duly thrown to the media pack in the hope they could make a meal of it. Much mud has been thrown at the SNP. Very little of it has stuck. Until recently.
One of the reasons the mud has failed to stick is that because it’s being thrown by British politicians and the British media there’s always a strong suspicion that it’s not really mud at all. It’s not that the SNP was necessarily squeaky clean but that they could hardly be other than pristine compared to those whose snouts had been in or near the trough of public money for generations. Again, there’s the matter of opportunity. It’s easy to look clean when you’re standing next to a British politician. It’s easy to be thought clean when nobody believes a word that comes from the mouths of you accusers. It’s easy to be clean when there’s so little cash flowing through your hands that even the tiniest discrepancy will be obvious.
It must also be acknowledged that there was pretty good accountability in the SNP too. Relative to the British parties the SNP was but a youngster. Too young to have developed any bad habits. The party’s leaders and managers were answerable directly to members. It was a pretty tight ship. That’s all changed.
It’s never easy to pin down a precise moment when such change occurs. It rarely happens all at once. But we can usually identify the most significant point. The SNP was changed by the reconvening of the Scottish Parliament. Of that there can be no doubt. For the first time in its history it became a potential party of government. That’s an entirely different thing from being a fringe party with not the slightest hope of ever getting anywhere near the corridors of power. Initially, however, the SNP changed for the better with devolution. I have long maintained that the SNP was exceptional because its very immaturity and inexperience meant it was better able to adapt to the new milieu. In particular, the SNP was advantaged by the electoral system. That may seem a controversial claim. It is commonly believed – or at least, frequently maintained – that the voting system was contrived specifically to keep the SNP away from effective political power. Or rather to keep effective political power away from the SNP. In fact, nobody envisaged the SNP and real power ever getting within sight of one another. The voting system was set up to ensure that no party could ever dominate in the way that the winners of British elections do. It wasn’t about keeping the SNP out. It was about keeping the Scottish Parliament and by extension the Scottish Government (or Executive as it was then) weak.
The overarching imperatives driving the creation of British devolution had absolutely nothing to do with improving democracy or governance and everything to do with maintaining the status quo. The Scottish Parliament must never become a power base for any one of the British parties and, most crucially of all, the Union must never be put in jeopardy. The rest was pretty much incidental.
Quite unintentionally, the voting system worked to the advantage of the SNP because, not being hidebound by ideology and rendered inflexible by internal empire-building and constrained by tradition as the British parties, the SNP was able to respond to the feedback mechanism created by proportional representation. Over the early years of devolution the SNP changed to become the party the public wanted. It’s flexibility and adaptability paid huge dividends. The SNP reaped the rewards in the 2007 and 2011 elections and has largely been living on its reputation ever since.
It probably started to go wrong in the aftermath of the 2014 referendum. In a way, the SNP was a victim of its success. To a far greater extent the party was both the beneficiary and victim of the Yes movement’s success. The extraordinary and quite unexpected surge in membership after the first referendum put strains on the party’s structures and internal procedures which were never adequately addressed. The rot set in.
Here comes the ‘Telt ye!’ bit!
Ah telt ye!
I did. Sort of. Although for obvious reasons I didn’t make public my concerns about the “rot” they were a significant part of the reasoning which led me to conclude that the new referendum must be held no later than September 2018. Think back to the state of the SNP and the independence movement in the period between 2015 and 2018 and you will see the ripe belly of a cause straining to give birth to an ideal. Everything was ready. All the pieces were on the table and needed only the will to bring them together. The momentum was there needing only to be seized. Forget the polls! The polls don’t determine outcomes! Effective campaigning does!
This state of readiness could not be maintained indefinitely. I calculated that by 2018 the moment would have passed. And so it was. The opportunity was missed. And for the SNP it has been a slow, stuttering but inexorable slide downhill ever since. And here we are.
I’m not about to catalogue the troubles that have beset the SNP over the last couple of years – and continue to do so. I will merely note that the latest scandal-in-waiting looks like having the potential to be the aphoristic straw so dreaded by camels. One blogger neatly, if intemperately and inaccurately, summarises the situation thus,
It is now common knowledge that the £700,000 raised and ring fenced for an independence referendum by the SNP has been spent.Show Me The Money, Barrhead Boy
It can’t be knowledge. In the absence of conclusive proof it must remain no more than a suspicion. It certainly isn’t “common knowledge” because many (most?) people will decline to regard it as such until they’ve seen that proof. And the figure of £700,000 is at best disputed. But we can hardly condemn the author of this comment too harshly. Such is the excessive language which must inevitably fill the void left by a lack (absence?) of openness and transparency. Surely the SNP’s leadership and managers know this?
Surely they must have seen this coming? One of the most rigorous and relentless forensic journalists around has been on the case for months. I’m not prepared to believe that the SNP could possibly have been unaware of Stu Campbell’s articles on the matter at Wings Over Scotland. Why were they not better prepared. Party Treasurer Colin Beattie – a man whose integrity I would not think to question – was apparently forced into making an unprecedented and quite unsatisfactory statement on the matter. Why? Either this situation could have been defused before it even became a situation never mind a scandal or it couldn’t for reasons which form the very core of the suspicion now hanging over the party hierarchy like a looming black cloud.
It looks as if the SNP leadership and managers actually thought nobody would ask questions about the donated cash supposedly set aside for a referendum campaign. It seems as if they continued to be convinced of this even when people were asking questions about the donated cash supposedly set aside for a referendum campaign. And doing so with increasing stridency. Are those in the inner circle and upper echelons of the SNP all totally deaf and blind?
I intend making no further comment on the issue of the supposedly ring-fenced money or the allegations of it having been spent illegitimately. I prefer to bide my time and haud ma wheesht until there is a bit more clarity about the situation. It’s not hasty and pejorative conclusions we need but prompt and comprehensive explanations. It’s only money, after all. Even if it is ‘unaccounted’ families aren’t downing in the English Channel as a consequence. But a proper accounting must be forthcoming immediately.
Of at least equal concern to me to any of these ‘scandals’ – pending as well as active – is the way the party has handled the issues. Or mishandled. Or failed to handle at all in any way. It’s all very well condemning and penalising anybody who is at fault. But if we don’t understand what went wrong we’ll stand no chance of putting it right.
In one of those quirks of historical happenstance which provide rich fodder for conspiracy theorists the SNP’s troubles all seem to be coming to ahead just in time for the party conference at the end of November. I’m thinking of submitting a resolution.
Conference respectfully demands to know what the fuck is going on!