IT IS TOO EARLY to address the crisis broiling in our ruling party over the inquiry into the handling of accusations against Alex Salmond. But the prospects for farce were highlighted by SNP Chief Executive Peter Murrell’s evidence yesterday: when Labour MSP Jackie Baillie implied he was being coached off camera, Murrell answered that his eye was distracted by a rogue magpie. You could almost see Malcolm Tucker off camera, stamping his foot with rage.
Magpie-gate was followed by claims of physical assault; then counter-claims; then Murrell being reported to the Crown Office for prosecution; then calls on the SNP NEC for his suspension.
After all this, I can venture one provisional conclusion: the independence movement must transcend its longstanding leadership model. This polarisation between two egos, each vying for the soul of the movement, reflects a centralised party, running a centralised government machinery.
Whether you accept Salmond or Sturgeon’s version of events is the smaller issue. The bigger problem exposed by this fiasco is the nature of state power and democracy in Scotland. Basic, boring liberal premises of checks and balances are being flouted – in many cases, scrutiny seems non-existent. And if independence exists for any purpose, it’s to correct the half-cocked nature of devolution which facilitates abuses of power.
Doubtless some will see any criticism of Government as “taking sides”. But this is all so incestuous, so Shakespearian, that both characters share the blame for the inner workings of Scotland’s ruling party. It’s also worth remembering that both dogs in this fight have effectively the same political outlook: a broad, globalising centrist liberalism. Indeed, that same outlook ideology basically defines all Holyrood parties, which is doubtless why personality clashes turn so toxic.
Consider this account from Neil MacKay, one of Sturgeon’s strongest media supporters. Yet he observes “the SNP’s consistent undermining of freedom of information legislation, and the Government’s clear desire to avoid scrutiny at all costs in the Alex Salmond saga – an issue which strikes at the very heart of our democracy. It’s often also quite clear during briefings that the First Minister can barely disguise her contempt for journalists.”
Regardless of your “side”, it’s a problem that lines between the judiciary, media and the various arms of government have been blurred. Those problems are heightened by limp Unionist parties, who have no answers for the even bigger democratic deficits of the Westminster model. The result is an “opposition” that cannot challenge the Scottish Government with any authority.
Independence remains the most important social movement in Britain today. Before the coronavirus intruded, it was regularly mobilising tens of thousands (perhaps more) on the street. But the movement’s dependence on the ruling party has been brutally exposed. Having no parliamentary vehicle of its own, it has effectively hit pause while ruling cliques, past and present, fight each other to a standstill. Hopefully the launch of the new Now Scotland organisation – or something similar – offers some way beyond the culture war and faction fights cannibalising the SNP.
Having come this far, failure to secure independence will leave Scotland in a dystopian, demoralised constitutional wasteland. Whether we like it or not, we need the SNP to have a modicum of focus and sanity. It’s Scotland’s only mass party and the only force that can break this deadlock. Despite the farce, the are still on course for a big win, which tells you all you need to know about the opposition. If they see out this election, the next step must be a leadership capable of moving beyond bloodletting.