Secrecy has seeped deep into the bones of the SNP’s high command
There are so many unanswered questions surrounding the SNP’s current crisis. And make no mistake, this is a crisis not a drama blown out of proportion by the media. How should it be dealt with and what are the lessons for all political parties?
First, the nature of the crisis needs to be understood. Crises may appear suddenly but more often are the culmination of mounting problems that surface suddenly and that is what has happened here.
As with the SNP Government, there has been a gap between rhetoric and reality in the internal governance of the SNP. The gulf between its claims to be a party of democratic self-government and its practice - between its orthodoxy and orthopraxy – has been exposed yet still defended by some.
This is a party that has accused opponents of blocking Scottish democracy. But its internal workings have been anything but transparent, accountable or democratic. The defence of ‘confidential decisions’ made inside the SNP smacks of the same defence of closed government that the SNP has long criticised in UK system of government. Open government, it appears, is for others. This attitude, if prevalent, does not bode well in dealing with this crisis.
Crisis ‘therapists’ insist that acknowledging the crisis is an essential first step towards resolution. And acknowledgment cannot be the kind of distracting empathetic-noises lacking adequate action heard so often on drug deaths and child poverty perfected by former First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. It requires acceptance of personal responsibility, without evasion, prevarication, obfuscation or blame games.
There are concentric circles of responsibility and complicity. At the core are those who must have known something was wrong. Then there were those who ought to have known and should have asked questions but did nothing.
Gullibility and credulousness may be an explanation but hardly an excuse, and raises questions about how such people got onto the SNP’s national executive or held other posts. The line between culpability and competence is unclear. There are, of course, also those who did enquire and tried to raise objections. These people need to be heard and commended.
Failure to acknowledge the lack of transparency and accountability will undermine any attempt to deal with the crisis. Rumours and conspiracy theories abound and will only get in the way and the best way to limit these – they will never be eradicated – is to prevent any possible accusations of a whitewash.
This is a party that has accused opponents of blocking Scottish democracy. But its internal workings have been anything but transparent, accountable or democratic.
The mishandling of the news that the party’s auditors had quit is how not to do this. Failure to report this at the time, keeping this news out of a leadership contest in which this would have been a legitimate matter for debate (and potentially have swung the contest), imprecise information on when it happened – we were told they had quit before the leadership contest, then ‘around October’ before eventually discovering it was September last year.
And subsequently we found out that the same auditors had also quit serving the SNP Westminster group. It transpires not only that more people must have known there was a problem as far back as last September.
The problems have been extracted drip by drip by enquiries from journalists. This is no way to dealing with the crisis and will do nothing to restore confidence. Secrecy has seeped deep into the bones of the SNP’s high command.
A review conducted by people who have held responsible positions in the SNP over recent years will not inspire confidence. The SNP needs to be seen to be doing this properly.
The party can draw on recent experience. In September 2020, SNP depute leader Keith Brown established a Governance Review Group consisting of a small group of members. The group reported in August 2021. Its recommendations were not acted upon despite being fairly straightforward and sensible.
SNP HQ staff responded, saying they felt demoralised and unappreciated. Anyone who has read the report will find this odd but revealing. A lack of staff capacity was one of the excuses for the lack of progress in implementing the report’s recommendations.
The SNP could implement many of the proposals, especially on transparency and finances, immediately. There should be no more excuses. Running away from problems, inventing excuses and relying on the kind of spin and soundbites that got the SNP into this mess will only prolong and ultimately undermine the process.
The creation of the Scottish Parliament increased participation, accountability and openness but more work is required. We have neglected the role political parties play in our democracy. Their internal workings ought to be much more transparent and accountable.
The SNP needs to address this tawdry affair properly. So far, it has been handled in the old way rather than with openness and transparency. There should be no whitewash. The Chinese word for crisis is ‘we-ji’ – ‘wei’ means ‘danger’ and ‘ji’ means opportunity. The SNP would be wise to take this opportunity to get out of danger and to do it openly, honestly and fully.