The week the new politics lost its shine
Mandy Rhodes on the week the sun set on the new politics
Politics seems a little less shiny this week. A little tarnished with the depressing reality that this new politics, this so called kinder politics, looks very much like the old.
From broken promises to cronyism to lobbying and to the unsavoury whiff of potential criminality with the inevitable premature clamour for a politician to be hung out to dry regardless of fact or fiction. This was the week that the new direction of politics skidded off course.
And while Jeremy Corbyn’s apparent backtrack on Trident could be filed in the ‘these things happen once you become a leader and have to compromise’ folder, and Fiona Hyslop’s cronyism row could – at a pinch – be dismissed as a naïve approach to government funding, the Michelle Thomson affair provides Scottish politics with a much more pessimistic view of what’s to come and how it will be handled.
The SNP swept to power on the promise of a new politics. Scunnered by the sleaze of Westminster and Labour’s longstanding sense of entitlement, the electorate looked to the SNP as a shiny new party of change. The developments of last week reveal much more of plus ça change.
Thomson was, until last week, the SNP MP for Edinburgh West. She rose to prominence as the managing director of the pro-independence ‘Business for Scotland’. When she decided to stand in the general election, she had senior SNP characters, including the First Minister herself, falling over themselves with fulsome praise for her business skills.
Endorsements included one from Alex Neil, Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Communities and Pensioners Rights, who said she had “an excellent grasp of the economic picture but also demonstrated commitment to how business can be used to support social justice”.
But an investigation by The Sunday Times alleges that part of Thomson’s property empire has been founded on purchasing properties at a knock-down price from sellers desperate to sell and then selling them on to other buyers – sometimes within a matter of hours – and making profits of many thousands of pounds in the process.
Thomson’s solicitor, Chris Hales, was suspended by the Law Society of Scotland in 2011, before being found guilty of professional misconduct in a ruling by the Scottish Solicitors’ Discipline Tribunal in May 2014 after carrying out property deals on behalf of the MP and her business partner and being struck off.
A disciplinary tribunal concluded that Hales “must have been aware that there was a possibility he was facilitating mortgage fraud, whether or not this occurred.”
In July 2014 the Law Society published an article about the case in its professional journal. But it wasn’t until December 2014 that it raised Hales’ case with the Crown Office informally during a routine quarterly meeting. It did so again in April 2015 before submitting the case more formally in July of this year, by which time, Thomson had been approved as an SNP candidate, gone through candidate selection and had been elected to parliament.
The delays in alerting the Crown Office, given the stark warning for potential fraud, is, on the face of it, extraordinary.
As these details were gradually made public over the course of last week, Thomson, who maintains her innocence and who is not currently under investigation but has indicated to Police Scotland her wish to help if required, has withdrawn from the SNP whip and been suspended from the party. She now sits in the House of Commons as an independent.
What is now important, regardless of the ongoing police investigation into these matters, is what the SNP knew and when. Sturgeon says the first she knew about any of this was when she read about it in The Sunday Times.
But if the party knew nothing about Thomson’s business dealings, why then was the First Minister and her ministers lining up to praise her for her business skills? It just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
The party says it can only know what a candidate chooses to declare. But is that right? It used to be that the selection process came from the bottom up. Potential candidates would do the grunt work at a local level and in time persuade their local branch to support them going forward. Importantly, they were known. People didn’t get the tap on the shoulder that now seems to be the norm.
In the end, Thomson may yet be revealed to be an entirely innocent pawn in a complex set of property negotiations.
But property is an issue of great political sensitivity. The policies of right-to-buy and unfettered growth in buy-to-let have meant that housing has become a lightning rod for, potentially, exploitative practice. It is a currency that creates a greater social divide; a clear gulf between the haves and the have-nots, which is why the SNP, back in 2002, was keen to enshrine the right to housing in any written constitution of an independent Scotland.
That is why searching questions about how someone profits from the housing market should rightly be asked when they present themselves as a person fit to represent others in the political process. This isn’t just a question of legality but of what might be considered morally right or wrong.
All parties have had their scandals but for the SNP, a party keen to establish its left-wing, progressive credentials, the Thomson affair, no matter how it plays out, shows the SNP’s new dawn has truly been broken.
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