Matheson: explaining the inexplicable

by | 29 May 2024

To understand the Matheson debacle you probably have to clear your mind of what you think you know and think something else instead.

It had not been my intention to write about the SNP and Michael Matheson again but people keep contacting me in bewilderment asking me if I can offer any coherent reason for why any of this has happened. Briefly, this is my best assessment – but throughout just hold one thought in your mind; ‘poor-quality teams make poor-quality decisions’.

I will never quite understand some of the early mistakes made (I wrote about this at the time and said I couldn’t understand why any of it was happening). But that having happened, it all makes sense from there. You just need to clear your mind of what you’re thinking about and start thinking about what they’re thinking about.

So for a start, once you’ve been in government for a while you stop responding altogether to any sentence that contains a sum of money under a million pounds. You spend your days dealing with (at least) ten million pound problems and that becomes your scale of reference.

Same in parliamentary knock-about. In SNP lore the sine qua non of its position as a ‘justified sinner’, an entity whose failures and dodgy behaviour is always justified because it isn’t at the scale of the sins of the other side, is Tory government VIP lanes for Covid procurement. That’s billions, literally a million times worse than and £11k expenses bill. £11k is loose change, barely worth bothering about.

Except that’s not how normal people think. If you really want to make a scandal stick, make it something where the public could say ‘well, if I did that at my work…’, and ‘…fiddling a billion pounds for my super-rich donors in procurement’ isn’t that. Most people just don’t know if this was a mistake made in a rush, a load of dodgy dealings or massive scale corruption.

But have a party in your garden during lockdown? We can all picture ourselves in that situation, or more accurately not in that situation. One of the rules of scandal material is ‘make it relatable’ – sex, money, cheating, lying, bullying. People instinctively understand these things in a way they don’t understand say the niceties of governmental legal advice.

I’m amazed that the SNP team seems not even to get that the way to really make a scandal stand out is to keep it smallish and easy to understand. But this couldn’t have been knowledge they had access to, because that’s precisely what they did.

What I can’t believe about all of this is that not a single person put their hand up and said ‘what if we’re misreading this and the public is horrified?’

So the next question is ‘how did they fail to understand that?’. This is I think the crux of the matter. The easy answer is that this team has got away with so much for so long that it started to think that getting away with things is normal. Certainly this kind of behaviour is normalised in SNP circles.

But I think there is a more fundamental misunderstanding that most people have. It is about the immediate goals of the Swinney administration. They heard him say ‘unity candidate aiming to heal divisions’. The indy supporters assumed that mean ‘the divisions in the independence movement’ and many in the public thought it meant ‘an end to the aggression towards opponents that typified the Sturgeon era’.

It means neither. What ‘unity’ means in the mind of Team Swinney is ‘ending signs of dissent in the party and returning to the nodding dogs era’. They seem to recognise that they can’t quite achieve this through the Sturgeon method of brutal suppression and over-the-top punishment beatings alone. Those remains part of the armoury, but they are also making a few small compromises and easing back in a few divisive issues.

The problem is that this is utterly mad. It is the final sign that Team Swinney is not fit for purpose. In taking this stance the SNP has almost completely turned inwards. They identify all their problems as coming from ‘the enemy within’ (i.e. anyone who doesn’t hate Alba enough) and can’t see that they are the author of many of their own problems.

The public can very much see that they have turned away from them, but the SNP leadership either didn’t notice or didn’t care. It believes that the correct order of things is ‘impose strong control over the party first, then start to think about voters from there’. The voters have noticed.

From that vantage point, from these two misapprehensions (that small scandals are easy to weather with a bit of whataboutery and that the real problem is lack of party subservience to the leadership team), it makes a lot more sense. They’ve already turned their back on the public to look obsessively inwards; from there, protecting one of your own looks like a strong unity move.

They just needed to swat off Douglas Ross with some jibes about VIP lanes and come up with some hit lines for Sarwar about Starmer, then stitch up a deal to save their man and shake off the opprobrium in a storm of shoulder-shrugging. That simple, they thought.

What I can’t believe about all of this is that not a single person put their hand up and said ‘what if we’re misreading this and the public is horrified?’. If anyone had any remaining ties back to reality outside the Holyrood bubble, they were ignored.

Everyone in the commentator class seems to have based their idea of Swinney as an amenable, conciliatory safe pair of hands on precisely four years of his life that happened 15 years ago

Then from the second Swinney said what he said there was no good outcome. A pathetic u-turn is probably least bad. Winning the vote with a stitch-up was probably the worst outcome, with ‘picking this stupid fight and losing’ a close second. But honestly, ‘we would have got away with it if it wasn’t for those pesky, meddling Greens…’ is shit too.

Frankly, they look like they were all for a bit of corruption-for-the-pals until they realised they didn’t have the numbers and then they panicked and pretended the whole thing hadn’t happened. That is dirty, weak and hypocritical all in one. And that’s the best outcome.

This was a minor scandal that could have been put to bed in about half an hour. Had Matheson paid back the money and resigned promptly and with dignity, there is a good chance that Swinney could be bringing him back into cabinet now. Instead I think there must be a solid chance he’ll lose his seat.

Finally, I think this has probably been helpful in one respect. Everyone in the commentator class seems to have based their idea of Swinney as an amenable, conciliatory safe pair of hands on precisely four years of his life that happened 15 years ago.

He was a terrible leader first time but, in Salmond’s first, minority term, he was a reliable presence who got all his budgets passed against the odds. Actually Salmond did a lot of that negotiating, but there was merit to the claim Swinney performed well.

Except his next term in finance was a five-year period in which he stoked a giant and ongoing war with local government, alienating lots of people. Then there was his dire referendum campaign ‘my spreadsheet says you’ll be £500 better off’ phase which is best passed over since everyone else including his party did.

Then for five years he picked innumerable fights with teachers, teaching unions and local government (again), failing almost completely to implement a fundamentally bad agenda. Then he spent another four years as Scotland’s most partisan man, blatantly breaking rules to try and scupper the inquiry into the Salmond affair. Remember, no-one in the history of devolution has come closer to losing a vote of no confidence. There is a reason for that.

Swinney does not seem to have the political judgement people think he has. His team is the team who was advising Humza Yousaf and they are doing about the same quality of job for him. There is no longer a reliable head in there to say ‘woah now’.

So take that team, wind them up to believe their first task is to stamp down on internal dissent, lose sight of the public and forget how scandals stick, see the world only through an aggressively partisan lens, get away with things for long enough that you feel you have impunity and fail to have a strong sense of how modern politics works. Do those things and this all makes sense.

It’s just that teams this poor who do these things don’t stay in power.

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