It's time for the SNP to get the house in order
- First published in : Visit Website
- First published on: 21st Apr 2023
First the good news. Devolution is not under as big a threat as some fear. When David Frost, the arrogant unelected right wing Tory peer who messed up the Brexit deal, used current SNP difficulties to say it should be rolled back, even the Scottish Tories disowned his opportunist intervention.
Devolution is the settled will of the Scottish people as evidenced by the near 75% support it garnered in the 1997 devolution referendum and the backing in the latest Social Attitudes Survey. Even the exercise of the section 35 power is not in itself a threat to devolution. Rather, it is a fact of devolution. Narrowly drawn, never used before and unlikely to be used frequently, we should await court guidance on the limits of the exercise of section 35 with interest. The courts will be clear that it’s a power which can be exercised in appropriate circumstances. Power devolved is power retained. English notions of parliamentary sovereignty dominate the British constitution, particularly under the now rather more conservative Supreme Court. Even in more expansionist days, under Lady Hale and her predecessors, the UK Supreme Court was happy to write off the Sewell Convention as legally unenforceable and it is noteworthy that despite all the understandable huffing and puffing there has been no legal challenge to the workings of the Internal Market Act from the Scottish Government.
Those of us who wish to see independence should not waste our time kicking against the inevitable constraints of devolution and picking legal fights we cannot hope to win. Instead, we should devote our time to making the case for independence so when it is next put to a vote it too will be the settled will of the Scottish people and gather the sort of support that will ease the challenges of delivering it successfully.
Next the bad news. The dream of independence is under threat, at least in the short term, unless my party gets it act together. Whilst it is true that the Yes movement is wider than the SNP and other pro-independence parties exist, the SNP has been and I believe should continue to be the political vanguard of our movement. Unfortunately, eight and a half years on from the independence referendum, despite the SNP being in government in a parliament with a cross party pro-independence majority for all of that time, opinion polling shows support for independence has not moved much beyond the pre indyref 2014 high of 52%. The party has failed to achieve sustained growth in support for independence and failed to take proper advantage of the opportunities afforded by the Brexit vote and the Johnson premiership. And despite numerous election wins and some excellent policies, other policy failures and a scandal over the party’s internal affairs are in danger of damaging the independence cause. The SNP must get our house in order.
Our new leader has taken some important steps in the right direction. His new programme for government has gone some way to reversing or pausing some bad policy decisions. His plans to reset the relationship with Scottish business, particularly small businesses which are the lifeblood of our economy, are very important.
He has also indicated openness to new policy ideas. Kate Forbes, Michelle Thomson and Ivan McKee are to be commended for being first out of the traps with their paper giving substance to the notion of a wellbeing economy by setting out what it is supposed to achieve and how we measure its success. And this is just the first of a number of collaborations they have promised with the left-wing think tank the Common Weal. Left out in the cold by the previous leadership this think tank have been beavering away diligently producing excellent policy papers which I now hope will enter mainstream SNP thinking. Refreshed thinking on policy and what Kate has described as “meaningful action that goes beyond rhetoric” is what is required.
It was sobering to see no mention of how we take the cause of independence forward in Humza’s speech. Only a year ago we were being promised a second independence referendum this October and now it seems further away than ever. Here more than anywhere else is where we need meaningful action that goes beyond rhetoric and some detailed answers to difficult questions that go beyond the high-level material published so far. But in fairness to Humza, we need to give his new Minister for Independence time to get to work. Alas, I fear, given what has gone before, he’s at a standing start.
Humza is also to be commended for refusing to throw party members suspected of wrongdoing under the bus at the first sign of trouble. It has been good to see an enthusiasm for the concept of innocent until proven guilty which was notably missing in previous cases. The refusal to suspend the party memberships of those arrested and released without charge pending a report to the Procurator Fiscal is a big departure from past practice. Presumably it will be applied across the board now where allegations are made so it is not just party bigwigs who are protected by the idea that justice should be allowed to run its course.
However, many years have been spent building up the SNP brand and it now faces considerable damage from the current scandal. It will be remembered that when allegations of sexual misconduct against Alex Salmond entered the public domain in August 2018, he announced that he was resigning from the party and would apply to rejoin once he had the opportunity to clear his name. It seems this has not set a precedent, but some have argued it should. Meantime Colin Beattie has done the right thing in resigning his role as Treasurer.
Whatever the position on party membership, it is simply not realistic or right for anyone on whose watch the current burach was created to remain in their posts or indeed in any promoted post until there has been a thorough review of what has gone wrong. Here I am not speaking of any criminality, that’s for the police and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal service to decide, I refer to the mismanagement of the party’s affairs and the lack of transparency and openness. Quite simply no one who was part of covering up problems with the party finances and the auditors’ resignation and no one who has previously stood in the way of reform should be anywhere near the process of putting things right. Neither in post nor on the NEC.
While I agree with Shona Robison that the party needs to get its house in order, I disagree that a culture has somehow developed at HQ and in respect of the party’s governance by accident. This culture did not happen by accident. It was fostered and encouraged by those who ran the party. Disagreement and even the mere asking of legitimate questions was treated as disloyalty. Worse still, those who asked questions or dared to disagree were attacked, smeared, and side-lined. I know this from my own personal experience because I was one of nearly a dozen people elected to the NEC in November 2020 to improve transparency and scrutiny. All or most of this current mess could have been avoided if we had been allowed to do our job. I had to resign because not only was I actively obstructed in trying to do what I was elected to do, but I was attacked, smeared and removed from my front bench position at Westminster for doing so. Others resigned and left the party because of their treatment. I stayed because I don’t give in to bullies.
However, it should be crystal clear that anyone who was part of this disgraceful episode in our party’s history should be nowhere near the attempts to put it right. They should resign from the NEC if they are still on it and none of them should be on the review board. Humza has the moral authority to ensure this happens because he was not in a leadership role, nor an elected official of the party nor on the NEC at the material time. In the absence of such drastic action, as we saw at PMQs this week, the legs will be cut from under excellent performers like Stephen Flynn who will be hampered in taking our party’s cause, the cause of independence, forward.