Scandal-hit SNP must set independence free

by | 25 Jul 2022

Another major sexual abuse scandal in the SNP shows exactly why the cause of independence must be disentangled from any one political party if there is really to be a plebiscite election

In late 2015 someone I had met during indyref copied me into a complaint she had sent to SNP HQ. She did that because she had sent it (and a reminder) previously and it had been completely ignored. I think she thought that copying me in would increase the pressure on the SNP to act.

It didn’t. Nothing she could do managed even to elicit a response of the sort ‘we have received your correspondence and shall process it in due course’ – it was just ignored. It was a complaint about a senior politician then seen as useful to the leadership and it concerned the repeated use of aggressive misogynistic language in meetings.

I have no idea if the complaint was well founded (it was certainly well documented), but what I do know is that it should have been taken seriously and that it wasn’t. Sickened by this, the woman concerned left the party.

None of this surprised me though. It was open knowledge then and still is now that the SNP’s complaints procedure is a very ‘flexible’ entity which is ‘applied’ very differently according to whether SNP HQ wants to protect someone or get rid of them.

I don’t know how many times senior party figures would just shrug when I’d say ‘your failure to take complaints seriously is going to come back to bite you’. It had become a cultural expectation in the party that complaints would be treated as if made in a royal court, not a court of justice. No-one expected inconvenient complaints against the leaderships favourites to be investigated.

And as I suspected, it is indeed coming back to bite them now. In fact it should be biting them much harder than it has – and I suspect it will. There is much more to come out about the Derek McKay case if some journalistic digging was done (he wasn’t told not to drink at party conference because he was singing too loudly…) and the failure to act in the Patrick Grady case leaves that a pretty disgraceful open wound.

The latest revelations from the weekend are just more of the same type – substantial allegations against a favourite, received, ignored and then the subject of the complaints given a promotion regardless. I certainly know of very strong rumours (some many years old) about other figures in the party who may be exposed.

Frankly the party has got away with this for far too long. The arrogant refusal to take these complaints seriously in the case of Joanna Cherry led directly to a jail sentence for a man who had been abusing her (as far as I can tell the SNP response was to backdate his resignation and wash their hands of the whole affair).

And in case you think that is only troublemaking by a malcontent, from the absolute opposite wing of the party loyalist insider Fiona Robertson wrote a deeply damaging report on ‘years worth’ of complaints which had not been investigated. There is clearly something deeply wrong.

(On the upside the party seems to have eradicated abuse against woman; its highest profile complaints all seem to be about apparently predatory gay men.)

Scandals hover over this administration like circling vultures

This all reflects very deep problems with the way the SNP is run but it also reflects the far from uncommon ‘accumulation of crap’ which parties in power for a long time tend to drag behind them. Power really does corrupt and the SNP has had a lot of power for a lot of time.

Under usual circumstances that would be resolved in the way democracies usually resolve these things – parties which are accumulating more and more scandal are thrown out and replaced with the other lot. It’s not that the other lot are necessarily morally superior, it’s just that they haven’t had enough power to be corrupted yet (honestly, who hears ‘shadow Holyrood spokesperson for…’ and thinks ‘ah, the sexy allure of power’?).

But these are not normal circumstances in Scotland. The constitutional divide means that the barriers to throwing one lot out and replacing them with the other lot are much higher. This is already unhealthy and will only become more so – look at the history of Pasok in Greece to find a worrying warning about where that leads.

And even with the inbuilt distortions of the constitutional politics we have in Scotland, these are not normal circumstances. The leader of the SNP has just taken a quite enormous gamble in publicly committing herself to turning the next UK general election into a ‘plebiscite election’, a de facto referendum.

But right now it very far from clear what this is going to mean. It should mean that the purpose of the election is detached from party – if it is a de facto referendum then you are voting on the basis of a proposition (that Scotland should be independent) and not for a political party. But is that what is going to happen?

At the moment the signs aren’t great. In theory at this election anyone can stand on a pro-independence ticket and every vote would count towards the total. That could be a powerful tool to dislodge the UK Government’s resistance to discussing Scottish independence, but it would certainly risk undermining the SNP (whose USP would become moot).

Yet it seems that the briefing to try and put the cat back in the bag is already underway, with the line being put about that it is about maximising both seats and votes – which is to say that only voting for the SNP would be a legitimate vote.

Worse still, the party is to be presented a code of conduct unilaterally produced by a tiny proportion of members which seems primarily designed to control who is and is not part of the independence movement. It is hard not to feel that the sole purpose of this is so that the SNP can ‘ban’ Alba from forming part of a pro-independence vote. (Why does it feel to me like it was always a matter of time before this administration started banning other political parties…)

This would all be an utter, cynical betrayal of the independence movement. The promise to hold a referendum in 2018 was broken, the promise to turn the 2019 election into an independence election was broken, the promise that big SNP majorities would make Westminster opposition ‘melt away’ was never honest.

The promise to hold a cross-party constitutional convention was broken, the promise to put the question of independence to a Citizens’ Assembly was broken (it was held but it was not asked to consider independence). And of course the promise to hold a referendum in October next year ‘no ifs, no buts’ was broken (it turns out there were some pretty monumental ifs and buts).

The definition of plebiscite is a “direct vote of all the members of an electorate on an important public question” – question, not party.

So can we really be confident that the promise of plebiscite election will be honoured? At the moment the signs are that this may just be another stunt to prop up a party which does not deserve its votes based on its performance and which has some very serious internal problems.

And this is the problem for independence – disentangling the cause of independence from the SNP has never been easy and right now the party seems to be trying desperately to renege on what looked like a promise to do just that, to disentangle independence from party politics.

And that was what the First Minster promised. The definition of plebiscite is a “direct vote of all the members of an electorate on an important public question”. Question, not party.

Can we separate the SNP from the cause of independence in a plebiscite election? Can we afford not to? If sexual abuse scandals keep coming, eventually it is going to corrode support for independence if we don’t. And its not just sexual abuse – from Tata Steel to the Gupta aluminium deal, from care home Covid deaths to the missing £600,000, from ferry disasters to bullying complaints against cabinet members, scandals hover over this administration like circling vultures.

In the 2014 campaign a lacklustre SNP performance early on stimulated a grass-roots insurgency to inject some excitement and vision into the campaign. To its credit the SNP realised it needed this and accommodated the grass roots.

But ever since it gives the impression of doing anything it can to exclude the grass roots (of its own party never mind the wider movement). And this will be a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it six week campaign which will kick off with next to no notice. A civic insurgency is virtually impossible.

Yet the stakes are very high indeed. If the SNP insists on telling everyone that this is a de facto referendum and it fails, independence would be undermined for another generation.

On the record, absolutely no-one in the SNP wouldn’t accept that the party and the cause of independence are separate. But in practice that is not how the party behaves. It has sought to grasp the cause very closely to itself for reasons of control and cynical expediency.

If that doesn’t change now, if the party starts to redefine ‘plebiscite’ as ‘one more mandate, but with even more votes this time’, then we’ll all be stuck hoping that a substantial section of the public doesn’t turn it into a plebiscite on ‘a party of gropers’.

The SNP must promise that this really is a plebiscite, that success will be measured only by the total number of votes cast for the proposition ‘Scotland should be independent’, whomever the votes are cast for. If it doesn’t, it shouldn’t have your support.

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