30 September 2015

Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP hit by a string of scandals


In terms of cold, hard machine politics, the Scottish National Party has played a blinder since the independence referendum campaign. The leadership has exerted iron control of the party’s MPs at Westminster and MSPs at Holyrood. Dissent is not tolerated and the brighter elected representatives stay quiet because Nicola Sturgeon’s analysis is that only by being relentlessly disciplined and patient, and not giving opponents a way back in, will the party hold together the impossibly wide coalition (including the radical hard left and pro-business Adam Smith types) that has put the SNP where it is today.

The party has also been extremely lucky, in its opponents and in the way in which English affairs have developed since 2010. But parties cannot be lucky for ever and eventually, in a democracy (even in one dominated by a single party as is the case in Scotland), scandals emerge and luck runs out. That’s politics.

Thanks to the investigative work of the Sunday Times, an extraordinary tale about a leading SNP person has emerged. The gloss is off. The party’s business spokeswoman, Michelle Thomson MP, had to give up the party whip on Tuesday over a police investigation into property dealings. Her party membership is suspended too.

The paper reported last weekend:

Nicola Sturgeon’s frontbench spokeswoman on business has been involved in a series of property deals exposed as possible mortgage fraud, according to a public ruling. Michelle Thomson, the Edinburgh West MP and Scottish National party’s shadow minister for business, innovation and skills, was involved in the suspect deals in 2010 and 2011. Many of the vendors were “distressed” and anxious to sell. Thomson has strongly denied any wrongdoing. The solicitor, Christopher Hales, who acted for Thomson, was struck off last year for professional misconduct over his role in the deals.

Thomson ran Business for Scotland, the not very impressive pro-independence campaign that claimed to represent business during the referendum while denouncing serious business people who warned about the catastrophic impact of the SNP’s ramshackle currency plans and dodgy projections on oil.

What has just happened with Thomson was not in the SNP leadership’s script and there are a lot of pictures of Sturgeon and Thomson out on the campaign trail together. Optics? Awkward.

Then there is the T in the Park affair. T in the Park is a music festival in Scotland, at which popular beat combos perform for adoring youngsters who pay up to £200 to sleep in a tent. Despite the company that organises the long-running event making large profits, it sought and received help from the taxpayer

The music industry, even in its post-internet revolution phase, is one of the most rapaciously capitalist industries on earth, contrary to the bleeding heart protests of some of those involved. Huge fortunes are made. Consumer choice dictates all. There is no conceivable excuse on earth for taxpayers to subsidise this business in any way, but that is exactly what the SNP government did with £150,000 of public money. That might sound like a tiny amount in the context of the total government budget, but quite a few taxpayers had to work hard all year – paying their taxes in good faith to the government – which then gave it to a money-spinning pop/rock concert.

There are accusations of favouritism and the SNP’s culture secretary has this week defended the deal. It all smacks a little too much of crony corporatism.

Then there is the ongoing mess that is Police Scotland, the single police force created by the SNP government in Edinburgh. The chief constable has had to resign and the police minister gives a good impression of a man completely out of his depth.

It is quite possible that the immediate impact of these rows is limited as the Scottish parliament elections approach. Sturgeon is popular and the main opposition party, Labour, is not in meltdown. It has melted down, past tense.

Scandals are like water dripping on stone, however. Even though New Labour at its peak was hit by scandal after scandal, the party carried on winning elections thanks to the paucity of opposition, a charismatic leader and economic conditions that seemed benign. It took many years for trust to be eroded, and for New Labour to gain a widespread reputation with voters for slippery behaviour and the pursuit of naked self-interest. Over time, this stuff gets noticed by the voters eventually. On that basis, don’t assume that the SNP’s current dominance is pre-ordained to last in perpetuity.

Iain Martin is Editor of CapX.