Can the SNP keep a lid on crisis?

by | 20 Mar 2023

The SNP is widely seen as being in crisis, but some are still trying to say there is 'nothing to see'. Is that a feasible strategy? And what is the alternative?

You’ve all seen Armando Iannucci’s brilliant The Death of Stalin? Now imagine it recast with the Still Game team and set in Craiglang. And that’s Scottish politics today.

I was going to do a simple ‘whose fault is this?’ article today but frankly Kevin McKenna (here) and George Kerevan (here) really did that job this morning. This damage has been done by one power couple who were compulsively paranoid and desperate to control everything in their environment so they removed all checks and balances to their power – and then behaved accordingly.

While they are principally to blame, some serious blame must also be apportioned to everyone who let them, and in particular the party elders who should have intervened. I have lost count of how many people told me in private ‘something is badly wrong’ but wouldn’t say it in public.

The only thing McKenna and Kerevan didn’t cover was the culpability of the media. Scotland’s journalists mostly seem to have been so mesmerised by Sturgeon, so transfixed that they just seem to have lost sight of clear, public domain information which contradicted their stance. The resignation of the party’s Treasurer and half the Audit Committee should have been a turning point but Scotland’s media treated it like a curiosity. I shall return to that subject another day.

Now there are two big dilemmas facing the SNP. First, is this really a crisis or just an embarrassing mistake? And second, what should be done about it now? Let me address those dilemmas not with my political analysis hat on but the media management hat I wore for so long during my career.

So imagine I was asked to provide PR advice to and incoming leader, what would I say? The first thing I’d do would be to ask a number of questions. Those would be designed to do one thing – to work out whether the ‘misstatement’ about membership numbers was truly a one-off error or whether more is likely to come out.

If I could be persuaded that it was a single error then I’d say ‘close the thing down now, let Murrell take the fall but stonewall on any suggestion this is a systemic problem’. I’d then have to say that Mike Russell also needs to take a fall because he said ‘in a tremendous mess’ and it isn’t possible to square that with a stonewalling strategy. One error isn’t a tremendous mess.

But (and this has nothing to do with my political position) there is little chance they could persuade me it was a single error, because as a PR guy I’ll tell you it is almost impossible for this to have been an error. When you use a number in public to rebut a news story which has the (basically) accurate number, it is never a mistake.

For those who aren’t used to the ways of PR, let me explain. The source of the original story had data sent by SNP HQ via a leak. If the PR chief is rebutting that with false information provided by the team who previously supplied the accurate data, it cannot be error. It is almost impossible to mistakenly rebut accurate information with inaccurate information if you’re the source of the accurate information.

It would take a lot for me to be persuaded that there isn’t trouble hidden all over the place because at face value there seems to be

So now (as a PR consultant) I know two things. First, there is definitely something wrong. And second, they’re lying to me about it. That’s not terribly unusual (as we’ve seen, people deny accurate information to their own PR people all the time), so I’d press on.

I’d have done a little research. First, what scandal stories have hit the newspapers? I don’t mean the government scandals like ferries because I’m advising on party, so it has to be party-related matters.

A quick scan (not even historical, just things kicking about just now) would suggest at least three areas of concern. I’d call those ‘complaints procedures concerns’, ‘legitimacy of expenditure concerns’ and ‘personal liability concerns’. Let me explain each.

I’d be pointing out that there have been two stories about the leader of a local authority stepping down and leaving the party after abuse allegations and I’d discover that a number of local councillors claim that the complaint was directly suppressed by SNP HQ. I’d ask if there was any chance that wasn’t the end of it.

I’d note that there were other suppressed complaints around a Westminster MP and that a Cabinet Member resigned after sexually grooming a school child. Is there any chance there is more? Revelations can proliferate at a fair-old pace when they start. Did anyone senior know about Derek McKay’s predilection for very young men before news broke in public?

What about the man convicted for threatening to rape Joanna Cherry. If all the internal discussion of Cherry’s complaint made it into the public domain somehow, would you be confident it wasn’t damaging? Is there any other complaint, any complaint at all, that wasn’t investigated? Any chance that the answer to any of those questions is even ‘mibby’ and you have a serious problem.

Next, there are two things that would greatly worry me about how money was being spent – the resignation of the Treasurer and Audit Committee and the police investigation. The police have escalated the investigation after a very significant preliminary investigation and full discussion with the national prosecution service. Even if there is no prosecution, there must be enough evidence to persuade prosecutors it’s not a futile exercise.

So what could come out? There is almost nothing good that gets police attention. Why wouldn’t you send the full accounts to the Audit Committee? Again, you don’t get many good reasons for that. Is there expenditure in here that shouldn’t be? You financed an MEP’s legal costs when he libelled someone with false accusations. I’d have advised strongly against that from a PR perspective. You didn’t do it again did you?

If there are any examples of money being spent on anything whatsoever that it shouldn’t have been spent on you have a problem. If there are police charges over it you have a very, very big problem. There can’t be any ‘mibbys’ here. Promise me (persuasively) there is nothing or you have problems.

Finally, I’d warn that at times like this you need to worry about people covering their own backs or getting caught up in liability for things that have been done. The NEC has never said so much as boo to Peter Murrell then demanded his resignation at the weekend over what you claim was an honest error. That doesn’t stack up.

So are there people who have been complicit in anything they shouldn’t be who might start deciding that if someone is going to get in serious trouble then it isn’t going to be them? Because if I was advising them I’d advise them to come out hard, say they were tricked and point the finger at the boss class. Is that a risk?

A new leader (unless they have the pain threshold of a full-on bondage gimp) cannot begin by absorbing the pain on behalf of the old guard if there is pain in store

Or what about other kinds of liability? If half of the Audit Committee resigned because they weren’t being given information, what about the half that didn’t? Should they not have gone too? It was their legal responsibility to see that information if anyone raised doubts. Is any of them a Chartered Accountant? That is a perilous position for them.

Again, the only safe reply to that is ‘100 per cent no, no-one anywhere is going to see the walls closing in and turn informant and there was nothing wrong done anyway’.

But here’s the thing, as a PR guy I’m going to assume that the police know more than me. They’re not shrugging and walking away, and the threshold for ‘fucking PR clusterfuck’ is a lot, lot lower than the threshold for ‘successful prosecution’ (which the Crown Office seems to believe has a serious chance of being crossed).

It would take a lot for me to be persuaded that there isn’t trouble hidden all over the place because at face value there seems to be. Really, at face value it seems to me vanishingly unlikely that this is over.

That leads me back to the second dilemma I raised at the start – what do you do about all of this? I’d ask a new leader one very simple question – how much pain do you personally want to endure to protect your predecessor?

If you have a very high pain threshold then there is a case to be made for suppressing what you can, absorbing what you can and hoping that you don’t look fatally damaged by the end. If you fancy governing in your own right I’d tell them to throw the previous regime under the biggest bus they can find.

Now let me be very, very clear what I’m saying here. Gratuitous revelling in the failures of your predecessor is a terrible look. I don’t mean ostentatiously decry your predecessors as corrupt or anything like that. What you don’t want to do is make it so bad that the inevitable question becomes ‘and what were you doing about all of this?’.

It’s a touch more subtle than that. What you need to do is focus on process. You do not have confidence that the party has the right processes in place or the checks and balances to ensure those processes are properly followed. Be honest about mistakes made in the past and under no circumstances defend a mistake if it was made in bad faith.

But then move very quickly indeed towards a fix. The SNP needs something that looks like the Forde Review into HQ corruption in the Labour Party when Corbyn was leader (except not contemptuously ignored a la Starmer). It needs a strong internal re-democratising process. And it may need a bit of a ‘truth and reconcilliation’ process if it is not to be at its own throat indefinitely.

The Death of Stalin is a very good comparator here. The sheer dominance of one figure in a party leaves confusion and disorientation when they are no longer there. Paralysis is normal. But in PR terms paralysis is a nightmare.

A new leader (unless they have the pain threshold of a full-on bondage gimp) cannot begin by absorbing the pain on behalf of the old guard if there is pain in store. Forget my politics, my professional eye states to me that there is pain in store, pain a plenty. The SNP’s only hope is to make sure that those who created the pain suffer it – somewhere other than in office inside the SNP.

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