Sunday 18 October 2015

Hatred and Fear

So, the SNP have had their biggest Conference ever to round off their most successful year ever.

Congratulations to them

But the really big thing that happened was what happened at the Conference's start. Nicola ruled out having a commitment to a second referendum in next year's SNP manifesto. That means, for the avoidance of doubt, before 2023 at the earliest.

The last referendum took so long that you forget how it started. With a lengthy negotiation between the Scottish and British Government over the terms on which Holyrood would be given the legal competence to hold a referendum. That power was ultimately ceded only for a time limited period, now expired, so this process would require to be repeated even if the SNP won in 2021 with a clear commitment to re-run the vote. And, for the avoidance of any doubt, that legal competence is critical. Anybody who thinks otherwise should ask the Catalans. And even if consent was given, there would then need to be another Referendum Bill passed.

So, eight years at the least. Which is a lot of conference time to occupy in some way.

For some it appears they think they'll be able to pass it with an annual hate fest. The hatred of all things English is never far from the surface within much of the SNP but other hates don't even need to be concealed. Hatred of the press in general and the BBC in particular. Hatred of the Tories, which might at least have some logic, were it not that it is accompanied by hatred for the Labour Party as well, just because. At some points during the debate over fracking it even appeared to extend to hatred of the entire modern world.

Who knows, maybe it's possible this will do for the next eight years but somehow I doubt it. However in attempting to find something else to talk about the Nats would have to actually do something about their increasingly obvious failure  to use the powers of the existing Scottish Parliament to address the developing crises in our public services.

Yet reform requires change and change always makes enemies. And in maintaining their fragile coalition which delivers them their electoral successes the SNP can't afford to make enemies. So the easy solution is to avoid reform.

Which kind of gets you back to where I started. With not having much to talk about. For eight years.

And to the second emotion which wasn't far away in Aberdeen.


What have the SNP got to fear, I hear you ask? They are commonly believed to have more or less already won next year's Scottish General Election. The Labour Party is currently in disarray and while the Scottish Tories may be experiencing a modest revival the adjective modest remains well justified.

Well here's what they have to fear. If now, with a uniquely popular leader, with no effective opposition, with virtually every Westminster MP and a more or less nailed on return to Government at Holyrood. With the army of the 45 defeated but still far from demobilised and with a UK Government virtually closed to Scottish influence. If with all these advantages they still can't risk a second referendum then when are they ever going to be in a position to do so?

Maybe 2023? Who knows.

Which kind of brings me back to hatred. The hatred the Nats are only slowly realising that even they possess. Hatred for the people of Scotland for failing to rise to the historic challenge fate had offered them last year

I suspect this won't end well. Hatred and fear together rarely do.

Tuesday 13 October 2015

Follow the money

Sometimes longevity in politics allows you a bit of perspective and I've now been in this game a very long time.

At some point in the Autumn of 1976 I went to the Kelburn cinema in Paisley to see the film "All the President's Men".

This was in a different age. A "big" film had to be seen on the big screen unless you wanted to wait three years to see it on the telly. No Sky, no Netflix, no You Tube.

And this was a big film. And certainly one I wanted to see. Not just big in its cast and in its staging but big in the story it told. Of how two junior Washington Post reporters, sticking to their story like limpets, eventually brought down the President of the United States himself.

But even in 1976 I was sufficiently cynical to doubt the neat, feature length, version on offer. So I bought the book.

It remains an influence on me to this day.

It is a worthy tribute to probably the greatest piece of political investigative journalism ever undertaken, written by the practitioners themselves. But it also has a third hero, their editor.

Woodward and Bernstein have got a great story, but Ben Bradlee is the man who insists they properly stand it up.

And he, Bradlee, is correct to be cautious. This is not a casual piece of gossipy political reporting. It concerns a story so important, if true, that it must be capable of unimpeachable verification. In the end it is verified and the rest is history but the crucial qualification comes before that, "if true".

For the story Bradlee is initially presented with is this. That the President has, first of all, condoned illegality and then conspired in its cover up. Much as Bradlee himself, no less than his enthusiastic reporters, is no fan of President Nixon,  he doubts whether even Nixon would be so crooked. Indeed, for the sake of the system, he almost hopes his scepticism to be justified.

But there is something even beyond that that bears on Bradlee's consideration. This is such a big story, such a scandal, an event with such potential repercussions that, surely, it can't be true?

Now, nostalgic though I am, you would be right to speculate that I am not here just writing about the reading habits of my youth.

For two weeks back I wrote a wee blog about the significance of the previous day's Sunday Times story regarding the business activities of Michelle Thomson, one time leading light in the group Business for Scotland and the then, two weeks ago, SNP, but now independent, Member of Parliament for Edinburgh West.

I say with due modesty that it had something of an impact, not least in Ms Thomson's now "independent" status.

Yet at the time I did not appreciate the can of worms I had opened.

For something approaching panic then broke out within the ranks of our governing Party, despite their currently enjoying a 30 point lead in the polls. And panic is seldom an aid to sensible decision making.

But such a decision was made, by somebody. A decision to throw Ms Thomson to the wolves. The chosen mechanism the disclosure of internal emails from the Yes Campaign revealing that her participation in the referendum campaign was not the unalloyed triumph it had previously been maintained to be.

Indeed, in a momentary lapse of judgement that will have a tail so long that I suspect that we might well still discussing it ten years from now, it was revealed that Peter Murrell, the Chief Executive of the SNP, had decided, mid referendum campaign, that Ms Thomson was no longer worthy of remunerated employment by Business for Scotland.

A not insensible view. Indeed quite the opposite. Except that, from the perspective of the law governing the referendum, Mr Murrell was not entitled to have any view at all as to the activities of Business for Scotland, let alone to be deciding who they should or should not be remunerating. For he had his, the SNP's, money to spend on referendum campaigning, which he was proceeding to do more or less to the legal limit. Meanwhile Business for Scotland was repeatedly maintaining itself to be completely independent of the SNP, and indeed of Yes Scotland. It needed to be so if it wished to incur election expenditure separately, and in addition to, either. It was, after all, registered as an "independent" permitted participant in the referendum.   If the SNP, through Mr Murrell, was controlling the expenditure of another "permitted participant" then that had to be declared as part of the SNP's permitted referendum expenditure . And if that control existed and if it was not to be disclosed, then Mr Murrell would be breaking the criminal law. A breach significantly aggravated by it meaning that the SNP intended to exceed the money they were legally permitted to spend overall during the referendum campaign.

These are not trivial matters.

The law in this matter takes a bit of digging but it eventually found in Schedule 4, Paragraph 24, sub paragraph 5, sub sub Paragraph (b) of the Scottish Independence Referendum Act 2013. By virtue of that provision,  a person who "knowingly or recklessly" makes a false declaration [as to election expenditure] commits an offence bringing with it the potential penalty of a fine or even of a term of imprisonment "not exceeding twelve months".

Now, in conclusion, if Mr Murrell was merely some minor Party functionary then he, like Ms Thomson, could be disowned by the SNP hierarchy, consoling himself that, if no-one else, at least his wife would stand by him if he was prosecuted. Except of course Mr Murrell is not some minor Party functionary. Dare I say it, perhaps I am not wrong to be reminded of Ben Bradlee's initial reaction these forty years past. Surely this can't be true?