How bad is this?

by | 5 Apr 2023

The Murrell arrest and the sheer shock-value of what is happening in Scotland today looks, well, bad. In reality it is probably all worse than it looks, and the route out of this is going to be hard to swallow.

Before I begin, please, please note the magic words ‘active investigation’ have been issued by the police which is always clear legal code for ‘it is expected this is going to become sub judice so from this point seeking to influence the outcome is a criminal offence’. (Sub judice just means ‘actively making its way through the legal system, which will only formally begin if and when the police issue a final report to the prosecution service).

This means that you can’t (and really, really shouldn’t) discuss matters relevant to the case, even if they are in the public domain. Anything that may become evidence is something to stay away from. Speculation will not make the wheels of justice turn any faster but could prejudice a trial.

All that made clear, just how bad is this situation for an independence supporter? To assess that it will be worth setting a baseline – which is to say, how bad were things yesterday?

As it happens I was working through that for another piece of work I was doing. My assessment was basically that Yousaf will lose a lot of seats in the approaching General Election and that this would lose him his job, but not soon enough for a replacement leader to have much chance of putting things back together in time for a 2026 Scottish election.

At the moment the SNP is predicted to shed just under one in three of its current MSPs in that election, and since the talent pool doesn’t start very deep and majorities are not correlated with quality of candidate, and because as things stood no-one was going to be deselected so there was little scope for new talent, the personnel representing the SNP in the Scottish Parliament in 2026-2031 is unlikely to impress.

But the SNP would still be the biggest party so might still have to govern in some form. All of that suggests that (while it is over-the-rainbow in political time horizons) the SNP would not be in a good shape to fight the 2031 election. That is a basic walk-through of where things looked most likely to go.

Now? Well let me start by saying that while I’ve known for a long time that this day would arrive and have thought through what it would look like, my worst imagination didn’t involve a former First Minister’s house sealed off with incident tap, an incident tent erected on the front lawn and her back garden being dug up (I hear).

This is unprecedented in British politics. Nothing like this has ever happened. This is the kind of sight that, in the past, we perhaps saw in Italy or Trump’s US or in a developing nation. This will be a major story in tomorrow’s international media. This is very, very bad.

But how bad is very very? This is where I need to take care because while I am aware (from reliable sources) of some of the evidence not yet in the public domain, I cannot begin to either know or comment on whether this is going to end up at trial – other than to note that the police would probably not be escalating if they thought it was marginal.

A trial would be really, really horrible. Ask Alex Salmond – he was found not guilty but even the contested claims aired in the trial have all but ruined his reputation with an awful lot of voters. Nothing good will come out of a trial.

This is probably not just as ugly as it looks, it is probably a lot uglier

This, however, is not what I’d be most worried about, because one way or another this damage is already baked in. What I’d be worrying about is what will happen as other matters are now reframed in the public imagination based on the new knowledge that the SNP at all kinds of levels may have had a loose grasp of the truth (let’s start with party membership numbers and go no further for now).

Again, I tried to hint what this meant a couple of weeks ago. As a PR guy, where I’d be looking first if I was trying to find the biggest next bear traps is SNP HQ complaints procedure, how it was operated and whether there are serious incidents which were suppressed for political reasons.

I’d then (outside the party) be getting very nervous about issues in government. Everyone has treated some of the (what I shall call for now) ‘lax’ approaches to things like keeping proper records of official meetings and storing information in a manner which means you could, you know, find it again as if it is a shrug ‘what are they like?’ kind of thing.

But it is not. It is unequivocally required and failure to do so is not a shrug matter. This is only an example of what I will again refer to only as ‘poor practice’ in government. If things are reframed as ‘I did trust them but now I’m not so sure’, pressure for some kind of independent inquiry into how things were done may become hard to resist. And what it reveals may not be good.

And that’s before we get to specific issues. Just to remind Scotland’s phenomenally uncurious media pack (for the umpteenth time), the Scottish Government did not ‘just’ send elderly people into care homes without testing them, they tested some, discovered they were positive and sent them anyway.

As far as I can tell this is a unique situation globally (even Boris Johnstone wasn’t that stupid) and it almost certainly played a fundamental part in the fact that Scotland has one of the worst care home deaths records of any country during the pandemic Both Nicola Sturgeon and Jeane Freeman may be liable for criminal negligence; the Covid inquiry is ongoing.

Can the Scottish Government resist an inquiry into the ferry debacle? What would such an inquiry reveal? Plus issues such as Tata Steel and the Gupta aluminium deals raise very serious questions about process. These are just a taster of potential government problems.

For what it’s worth I am currently unconvinced that these events will stray too far into the whole Salmond affair, but Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish Government as a whole got away with rather a lot in that process based on the fact that everyone kept emphasising ‘trustworthiness’. If that issue gets reframed in the public imagination and anyone starts sniffing around, more bad things will emerge.

And that’s before we consider the range of ‘wildcard issues’. I wonder if the private email account that Nicola Sturgeon very notably failed to deny using for government business (but which Scotland’s media forgot within a day of publishing a story on it) is something she’d want to be in the hands of police or a civil service inquiry.

Or what really is the state of the SNP finances? I still suspect they’re overstating the membership numbers. What about Alyn Smith’s legal fees when he was sued (successfully) for defaming another politician? How much of all of this is really, definitely not a problem that may emerge?

So how bad is bad? Bad bad. Really bad bad. This is probably not just as ugly as it looks, it is probably a lot uglier. Remember that baseline – the SNP was on track to lose one in three MSPs before the previous First Minister’s house was surrounded by police incident tape.

I hope that the people who sent us to this destination are remembered throughout Scottish history for what they have done

What can be done about it? Here bad bad gets worse worse. The way to respond to this is to try desperately to prevent drip-drip of corrosive stories over what could be years. That means disclosure. Which means throwing a lot of people under some very heavy busses.

Were I advising someone on this (with my PR hat on) this is what I’d be telling them:

“First, suspend the NEC immediately, remove your Treasurer, put all senior HQ staff on gardening leave, suspend party membership for anyone within a hundred yards of any of the potential crimes being examined until they are cleared (or not) and blame absolutely everything on the last lot.’

“If Murrell is charged then pressure him to plead guilty to avoid a trial, get Nicola Sturgeon (who is not going to be getting a high-profile job any time in the near future) out of Parliament asap and accept you’ll probably lose the by-election.”

“All that done, then bring in external and independent organisational development consultants to examine HQ with urgency and appoint a significant lawyer to do a full inquiry of what happened, a la Martin Forde KC and the Labour Party – but then don’t bury the conclusions as that corrupt bastard Keir Starmer did. And then, after a period of self-flagellation, try and find a big, positive initiative to push forward with and try and move on.”

That would be a standard response – but do you get what it means? Suspend Nicola Sturgeon’s membership? Force her out the party? Expect her to take the blame for this and withdraw from public life for the foreseeable future? Disclose everything? That’s the way to do it, but is that palatable for the SNP?

Because for reasons that are beyond me other than that he really is as bad at his job as he seems, Humza Yousaf has seen absolutely none of this coming and has not only tied himself closely to the last lot, was not only still defending Peter Murrell after he had to resign for lying about party members but is still (utterly inexplicably) crossing the road to defend Nicola Sturgeon today.

Whoever is advising him should be removed very, very quickly. By his own choice Yousaf has put himself in a position where, for as long as he leads the party, he is a full and total liability, a constant reminder of what ‘continuity’ actually means for the SNP. If things go the way I expect them to over the next few weeks, his position is untenable and he’ll need to go. (He had/has a tiny window in which to do a sharp U-turn but he’s not taking it.)

If this plays out anything like this looks, the SNP may be in the weird position that the last leader they can reference in public without invoking scandal is Gordon Wilson – who not only demitted office 33 years ago but died six years ago. (I take no pleasure in saying this about John Swinney or Humza Yousaf, neither a fundamentally bad person but whose loyalty made them make very bad choices.)

My guess is that Kate Forbes will be SNP leader by Christmas and her challenge is enormous. (Can you see why they were so desperate to get the leadership election over by the Easter recess which was always likely to be when the police made their move?) I will return to Forbes’s challenge if things play out like they look like they’re going to.

Please don’t kid on that the cause of independence is untouched by any of this. It has been and it was always going to be. That’s why I’ve spent the last six years trying to tell you this was all happening. That is why I begged the movement not to accept that one person was allowed to make herself synonymous with the cause of independence.

None of this had to happen. Even by early 2020 this didn’t have to happen. I tried and tried in so many ways in public to warn it was coming and in private (to senior people in the party) to suggest routes out. I failed utterly. And now we’re here.

Let’s take a breath. I described this to a friend as like being tied to a train track but the train is still an hour and a half away. All this is going to get worse – but not immediately. Things may change. But as it stands, the long and short of it is that if you have any interest in Scottish independence in the near future you are going to have to get your head round the fact that the SNP alone is not a vehicle which can deliver it. Not after today.

But that cause is not lost and the setback is not generational. We will regroup. Eventually. When we do I hope to god we are all on the same page. And I hope that the people who sent us to this destination are remembered throughout Scottish history for what they have done.

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