Those of us with questions about SNP finances were shouted down
- First published in : Visit Website
- First published on: 21st Apr 2023
It goes without saying that anybody under suspicion of criminality is entitled to the presumption of innocence. It’s a cornerstone of the rule of law in a democratic society and it also makes good sense. In recent times we have seen commentators ending up with egg on their faces when they assumed that a leading political figure was guilty only for a jury to acquit him of all charges after actually hearing the evidence.
For that reason and because of the very strict Scots law rules on contempt of court when commenting on ongoing criminal proceedings I won’t be saying anything about Peter Murrell’s arrest in this article other than to note that he is very lucky that his SNP membership has not been suspended pending the outcome of the police investigation. Others have not enjoyed the same leniency. One thinks of Michelle Thomson, never arrested, ultimately exonerated, but thrown under the bus at the first hint of trouble. Tim Rideout was suspended for 6 months for an ill-judged tweet. Gender critical women have been suspended indefinitely for tweets exercising their right to freedom of belief and freedom of speech. This difference in approach is neither fair, nor in accordance with the principles of natural justice. In some cases it might even amount to unlawful discrimination.
The anomalies in how the SNP complaints and disciplinary process has been applied are part of a much wider problem with the party’s management which is now in the public domain because of recent events. I am conscious from my conversations with party members and from my mailbox that what has occurred has been deeply shocking for many. For others including myself albeit that some of the visuals have been shocking the fact that there is a significant problem has come as no surprise.
At the SNP conference in November 2020, I was one of a group of members elected to the NEC by thousands of fellow conference delegates on a promise to improve transparency and accountability. From the moment we set out our manifesto for change we were attacked and traduced by a small but determined cabal of fellow party members including councillors, parliamentarians, and other NEC members whose actions were condoned by the silence of the leadership. When some of those attacking us lost their places on the NEC at the elections, they were simply co-opted back on to the body despite the fact they had no democratic mandate to be there.
Those of us elected by the membership were concerned about the party’s finances and governance. No one can seriously now doubt that that those concerns were well founded. Yet from the moment we were elected our efforts to get answers were frustrated. Worse, we were shouted down and hounded out of office. I have sat on several other management boards, and I have never witnessed business conducted in such a menacing atmosphere. With the benefit of hindsight, it looks to have been a deliberate attempt to hide the truth of what was going on.
At the first meeting of the new NEC in December 2020 we raised the issue of the liability of NEC members should anything ever go wrong and whether we were insured against that eventuality. We were promised an answer, but as with our questions about the party’s finances, the answers were never forthcoming. I should imagine the current members of the NEC will be more than anxious now to know the answer to this question. The party’s constitution is quite clear that the NEC is responsible for ownership of the Party’s assets and management of the Party's financial affairs and says that it has full control over all monies, funds, property, investments and securities of any kind belonging to the Party. That was certainly not my practical experience.
Readers may recall that shortly after I started asking awkward questions about the party’s internal management, I lost my front bench role as the SNP Spokesperson on Justice and Home Affairs in February 2021. Yes, reshuffles happen and yes, nobody should assume an entitlement to a position but the way it was done was unusually brutal. Usually in these circumstances there would be some word of thanks at the following group meeting. Breaking with convention there was absolutely no acknowledgment of the work I had done over the last 6 years, including winning the case against the prorogation, none of the usual thanks, just a terse comment from Ian Blackford that I was guilty of “unacceptable behaviour” and “Joanna is leaving us” as though I had somehow been kicked out of the group rather than simply not taking up a role as spokesperson. He has yet to specify what he meant by that. Others including Kirsty Blackman made it clear from their social media attacks on me that I was being sacked for “transphobia”. I am still waiting to hear the evidence in support of these attacks which were, of course, in breach of the party’s code of conduct. My complaints about this like that of so many women in the party have been ignored.
I have been open about my gender critical views since May 2019. They seemed only to become an acute problem when I sought and won election to the NEC on a manifesto for change and started asking searching questions. I am in no doubt that wrongful allegations of transphobia were weaponised against me and others who were rocking the boat to marginalise and discredit us. There was a strong correlation between those of us with the guts to question the party’s internal management and those with the courage to raise questions about the policy of self-identification of sex now embodied in the Gender Recognition Reform Bill. We have been proved right in our concerns about both. The weaponisation of our legally protected views against us was dirty politics at its worst and it put some of us in real danger.
I expect those still in denial about the extent of the mess that has emerged in the SNP’s management will be unhappy about me setting all this out. But it needs to be said. If we are to rebuild our party and achieve meaningful unity there must be an acknowledgement of what has gone wrong, a proper investigation, major reform, and an end to the practice of bullying and smearing those who dare to ask questions or sound warnings.
There are still many people in the SNP and wider movement that seem to see the current mess as a wrinkle to be gotten over and who are keen to point out that our scandals aren’t as bad those of other parties. Many people have been wheeshting for Indy for so long that it is hard to break from that mindset. As an SNP member and supporter of long standing I care about the SNP and still see it as the main political vehicle to lead us to independence. So, in protecting the cause of independence, I also want to save the SNP, but this can only be done if we look at what has gone wrong, how it was able to go wrong and make sure it can never happen again.
I was impressed, as I so often am given her integrity, by Kate Forbes’ dignified plea to members to stay. I would echo that, but I would not expect members to stay unless they see a firm commitment to address what has gone wrong. This means action now before this disaster engulfs both our new leader and our party. I support the calls by Alex Neill and Bill Ramsay for forensic accountants to be brought in to look at the party’s finances and report back to the party. This needs to be done immediately given the looming deadline with the Electoral Commission on 7 July. As a member of the Westminster group, I had no idea until it came out in the press that auditors had withdrawn their services as overseers of our group accounts. Now, I understand from press reports that the group only has until the end of May to submit properly signed off accounts.
I also agree with Alex Neil that those who previously opposed reforms to the party’s structures to improve transparency and governance should consider their position and resign. What has gone wrong cannot simply be laid at the door of one individual. The problem is much wider than that and the party’s office bearers cannot delegate their constitutional responsibilities to an employee. Moreover, party HQ is not just the Chief Executive. There are staff specifically employed to deal with legal and operational matters and compliance. Again, looking to the party’s mismanagement rather than any suggestion of criminality we need a proper review of what they have been doing. A new broom is needed at SNP HQ. The selection panel for the new Chief Executive Officer should reflect the widest possible membership base and consist of people who have relevant skills and experience. If the prize of independence is to be won, employees like parliamentarians should be appointed on merit.