7 December 2015

Is Nicola Sturgeon’s scandal-hit SNP becoming too arrogant for its own good?


What’s this? An SNP MP campaigning against tax avoidance schemes is revealed to have benefitted from a scheme that could have been used to minimise tax. The Mail on Sunday Scottish edition alleges that Phil Boswell enjoyed an £18,000 interest free loan via an employment contract. These activities are entirely legal, but awkwardly Boswell has made much of campaigning against them since becoming an MP in May. His explanation is a corker: “After finding myself previously employed in such a contract, I decided to utilise my knowledge and experience in my new role as an MP to highlight treasury management issues.”

The SNP’s opponents are having fun with the Boswell story, levelling the charge of hypocrisy, just as they have had fun with a slew of recent problems to hit the Nationalists. The 56-strong group of SNP MPs elected in May is already down to 54 MPs, with two MPs already under investigation, one for exotic property dealing and the other over the finances of the Women for Independence campaign. If Boswell or another MP has to stand aside the SNP will be losing MPs at the rate of three every six months, or six per year. This is a remarkably high rate of attrition and would be most unfortunate.

Even mentioning this stuff infuriates the most ardent Nationalists, who make New Labour 1997-2001 look relaxed about criticism or legitimate examination. The behaviour of the SNP elite and its fanatical followers suggests there is a considerable amount of out and out arrogance creeping in. Attempt to watch even a few minutes of the dire event that is First Ministers Questions at Holyrood and you’ll see First Minister Sturgeon trumpeting her standing in the polls and sneering at opponents against a backdrop of SNP MSPs behaving like the audience at a Moonie wedding.

This arrogance isn’t Sturgeon’s natural demeanour. She’s generally far too level-headed, down to earth and smart to fall for the idea that she is infallible. One wonders then if the media coverage – being lauded in London and treated as a superstar in Scotland – is causing her to lose focus and fail to realise the danger inherent in a febrile political climate in which the weather can change very quickly. Look how quickly it shifts. Look at the miserable fate of Republican former “frontrunner” Jeb Bush, or the rise of Trump in six crazy months, or what is happening to Nigel Farage as UKIP sinks. Best to realise that what goes up can come down and behave accordingly.

At Westminster too, SNP MPs seem out of sorts after falling for the idea in the summer that they were a very big deal. They clearly didn’t enjoy being eclipsed in last week’s Syria vote and were pivotal in convincing voters, erroneously, that the Tories and Labour cheered the announcement of the Syria vote. There wasn’t cheering at the vote.

Meanwhile, former leader Alex Salmond MP cuts an increasingly angry figure. It is whispered that Nicola Sturgeon is more than exasperated at the antics of her uncontrollable predecessor.

On the meat and drink of public policy, the anti-market SNP is also being found wanting the longer it is in power. On policing and schools the record is poor. The attempts to take greater control of Scottish universities, under the cover of reform, are an appalling incursion against institutional and intellectual freedom.

The closure of the Forth Road Bridge is tricky too. Although Salmond and the SNP sensibly pressed ahead with a second bridge across the river north of Edinburgh, there are many questions to answer on why crucial repairs were not made in good time to the battered old bridge on which commuters rely until the new bridge is ready. This one cannot be pinned on “Westmonster” or the Tories. Transport is devolved and the SNP has been in charge since 2007.

The solace for the SNP is that for now the voters in Scotland do not seem to care much about how badly they are governed. All that matters is that Sturgeon is a star and the SNP “sticks up for Scotland.” In any normal political set-up, the shortcomings would have given the opposition a route back. This time, the previously mighty Scottish Labour is in pieces. It is short of funds, short of candidates for the Holyrood elections and short of credibility. It finds itself stranded, with the tide of history going out.

An opportunity presents itself for the Scottish Conservatives, and their leader Ruth Davidson. The SNP’s arrogant demeanour and Labour’s troubles gift Davidson a chance – just a chance – of replacing Labour as the opposition in Scotland. She can offer a proper programme on school reform, and all the rest of. But her strongest card is the idea that someone surely has to hold the SNP to account. Davidson can frame the election as follows: Do you really want this arrogant bunch, who shout down dissent and won’t examine their record honestly, given yet more power, completely unfettered? Shouldn’t you vote for someone who will calmly and robustly take them on and speak up for you? Do you want a Nationalist one party state or would you rather have those in charge of policies on education, health, police, transport and now taxation put under a bit more pressure for the good of the country?

If that is to work for the Scottish Tories, they cannot throw it in subtly a fortnight from polling day. It would have to involve a frank admission by Davidson that they won’t win the election, which of course they won’t, and months of establishing the idea of the need for strong opposition in the minds of voters.

The question for Scottish voters then becomes whether or not they want someone in there, in the parliament in Edinburgh, defending those who work hard and pay taxes from the ineptitude of an increasingly arrogant SNP elite. You would hope that 25% or so of Scots are still sensible enough to respond “yes” to that question. But maybe not.

Iain Martin is editor of CapX