Craig Berry: Democracy within the SNP must go beyond listening exercises

“What we ultimately need in the SNP is the space to begin talking about new, positive ideas again. Wider democratic debate within the party needs to go beyond listening exercises. We need to facilitate discussions to develop our independence strategy and economic policy, and we need the democratic mechanisms to ensure the party is delivering the will of its membership.”

IN ENGINEERING, you may often be faced with a black box theory, an abstract representation of a system or a device which can only be viewed in terms of its inputs and outputs but its internal workings are unknown.

However, this theory goes beyond engineering and can often be a good representation of economic and political power in Scotland. How we develop policy within the SNP can often be seen as a black box.

Internal party democracy can allow SNP members the opportunity to hold the leadership to account at party conference, but we also need to be aware of the difference in power structures. Ordinary members may have the right to vote, but the leadership still hold an authoritative power which they are capable of exercising beyond party conference. This power structure is fortified through the centralisation of power within the party.

The internal party can be viewed as a black box, in that ordinary members are unaware of the internal operations and manoeuvrings. What we are aware of are the inputs and outputs. The ‘input’ would be the leader, the chief executive, the business convener, etc. However, the relationship between those ‘inputs’ need to be identified as the ‘outputs’ can be affected by their perspectives. It should be considered a conflict of interest that the leader is married to the chief executive and appoints the business convener – three of the most powerful roles within the party. The way the internal party manages PR behind the scenes can be affected by these conflicts of interest.

As the party of government, this close-knit, top-down style of leadership is carried over into the communication and control of the Scottish Government. Being able to identify the ‘inputs’, or rather the key influencers, can be an important way to understand the way policy is developed.

There are two types of influence in the government. Formal influence would be parliament committees or the civil service engaging with academics and professional associations. Whereas informal influence takes the form of personal contacts and social forums exerting policy influence.

‘Personal contacts’ is an important point to highlight, as individual influencers can often be fluid between governmental and non-governmental jobs. When this happens, there is a collection of people that interact in multiple roles with shared perspectives that creates a sterile environment, encouraging the close-knit bubble.

Andrew Wilson, head of lobbying firm Charlotte Street Partners (CSP), is an example of someone who has worked across governmental and non-governmental jobs, and now plays a pivotal role in the development of policy in both the Scottish Government and the SNP.

CSP could be considered a black box as it operates in strict secrecy on behalf of its clients and their corporate interests. We don’t know how it works but we also don’t know the ‘inputs’ and in some circumstances, we don’t know the ‘outputs’. We have to work with the information which is publicly available.

We know that CSP advises the Scottish Government on economic policy. We know that Scottish Enterprise awarded Alexander Dennis £7.3 million, the largest research and development grant in its history at the time, despite recording £18.5 million profit. We know that CSP have a relationship with Scottish Enterprise. We know that CSP Managing Partner, Malcolm Robertson, is brothers with the CEO of Alexander Dennis, Colin Robertson. We know that CSP Chairman, Angus Grossart, was a 33 percent shareholder of Alexander Dennis through his merchant banking group Noble Grossart Holdings.

Include the wider list of clients that CSP represents, such as the fracking sector in Scotland, policy which is developed by Wilson is likely to reach an outcome which reflects the economic material interest of CSP and the corporations which they represent.

This is reflected in the Sustainable Growth Commission (SGC), the economic policy for the SNP in an independent Scotland, where Wilson was criticised for his lack of trade union and civic society engagement. This means that there was a lack of critical engagement which makes the development of the policy proposals complacent to corporate interests.

With the policy development process already captured by Wilson, a series of National Assemblies were offered to party members to discuss the policy proposals within the SGC. Although these assemblies were great opportunities for well-needed debate within the party, with a particular dislike of the currency proposals, there was no democratic mechanism within these assemblies to adequately identify their conclusions. What was initially referred to as a ‘listening exercise’, looked like a rebranding opportunity.

Exerting the influence and power of authority, the process of making the SGC official party policy was carefully managed. The SGC had already received vocal backing from the leader, but the motion put forward to the conference was moved by the depute leader and seconded by the finance secretary. The motion itself was three times larger than any other motion at the conference with around 1400 words. When it came to debating the motion, there was a series of high-profile ministers and council leaders who would all take to the stage to voice their support.

These individual actions all amount to a cumulative effort to influence the support for the SGC through the authority that each of these people hold and the actions in the process of policy development. The SGC was only able to be tempered by the support of an amendment which received the backing of grassroots campaigns.

This attempt to control the membership through admittedly very effective communication has failed to deliver longevity. For ordinary members, there is a growing frustration at the lack of firm direction from the leadership which has allowed a culture of unease to grow rapidly. This growing agitation can be blamed on many things, but the primary source of these frustrations comes from the centralisation of power.

When the person who writes our economic policy calls for the ‘softest independence possible’, you can understand the agitation people will feel in their concerns that neo-liberal economic policy will fail to win back working-class communities. But the problem here isn’t the neoliberal economic policy itself, it’s the way that policy has been allowed to develop.

When Angus MacNeil and Chris McEleny call for a ‘Plan B’ on independence, they speaks to a constituency of agitated SNP members who feel as though their voices aren’t being heard by the leadership. Whether you are supportive of this ‘Plan B’ or not, the core argument here is that we need to discuss within the SNP how we achieve an independent Scotland.

What we ultimately need in the SNP is the space to begin talking about new, positive ideas again. Wider democratic debate within the party needs to go beyond listening exercises. We need to facilitate discussions to develop our independence strategy and economic policy, and we need the democratic mechanisms to ensure the party is delivering the will of its membership.

This article isn’t calling for dismantling the black box, although that’s a discussion for another time. It is calling for the democratisation of the system of economic and political power.

Craig Berry is the founder and convener of the SNP Common Weal Group, and an electrical engineer who has written policy papers on automation, space and more for Common Weal

Picture courtesy of the SNP