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Keeping Their Heads Down
Some SNP politicians have been conspicuous by their silence on the party's crisis. Plus news of new subscriber content from Notes on Nationalism.
There have been two types of SNP politicians over the last few weeks. Those who are talking and those who are quiet.
The SNP politicians who are talking.
The first are the ones who put the facts on the record, even though it creates terrible headline after terrible headline. I’ve written a lot about Humza Yousaf’s constant media presence. On one hand, he has made himself popular with the media by being accessible. If you support the SNP you might think it’s for the wrong reasons. As I wrote in an essay for the Mail at the weekend, journalists cannot believe their luck:
Open any book on good communications practice and the chapter on how to handle a crisis tells you the same things: get all the damaging information out quickly, establish a process to get you out of the mess as fast as possible, and don’t speak to media about anything until you know everything. Yousaf has done the opposite. Bad news is drip-fed out every day. The internal process he has established extends the crisis into the summer. And every day he opens himself up to questions without being able to give answers.
We’re now used to seeing our novice First Minister blundering into the amassed media. In a crisis a leader should be a reassuring figure, confidently explaining to the public why there is no need for alarm. Yousaf though seems to believe that his role is to narrative this crisis, not to manage it. As he walks around SNP HQ opening cupboards and finding new skeletons he appears to be at the mercy of events, not in control of them.
In the last few days, we have seen others going public to distance themselves from the past management of the SNP’s finances.
Like Hacker T Dog, they want people to know they are innocent men.
Former Westminster Leader Ian Blackford went on Good Morning Scotland. He acknowledged he had known that the party’s auditors had quit last year but also said that “all appropriate information to do with the finances of the Westminster group” had been passed on after he left.
That was contradicted this morning by his successor, Stephen Flynn, who appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Today and said that he hadn’t been told that the same firm had quit as the SNP Group’s auditors until months after he became leader. Meanwhile, the SNP’s Deputy Leader Keith Brown was also in the media to put on record that he had no idea that the auditors had quite the party he helps lead. Incredibly he says he only found out shortly before we all did, as it was about to hit the news.
Politicians are egotists. Normally they want to appear in the know because insider knowledge is an important currency in politics. Why then are these politicians going out of their way to volunteer that, despite being leaders of their party, they were clueless about what was going on? They know the scandals overwhelming the SNP, leaving aside any legal questions, are deeply damaging to political reputations. All these interviews are simply to put on record 'it wisnae me!’
The SNP politicians who are quiet.
There are then those politicians who have so far been more reluctant to talk about the finances of their party.
Away from the police investigation, but as part of the wider SNP financial bloodletting, someone briefed an astonishing story about Angus Robertson. It turns out Robertson was secretly paid £33,000 on top of his £74,000 MPs salary when he was Westminster leader. This was paid from Short Money, the public funds that go to opposition parties. While it’s not against the rules, it has certainly raised eyebrows. Nobody I have spoken to in Labour who has dealt with Short Money knows of any other politician who had their income boosted with these funds, which are normally used to pay for research and communications staff to support MPs.
The really serious charge against Robertson is one of stinking hypocrisy. In 2015 he issued a self-reverential press release about how he and other SNP MPs were foregoing their pay rise. He said:
“Now is a time of austerity and huge financial difficulties for far too many people. It is not right for MPs to have a pay-rise in these circumstances.”
To say this in public while trousering a £33,000 pay rise in secret is extraordinary. Sooner or later Angus Robertson is going to have to go on the record about this.
One other politician who has been fairly quiet since she announced the new leader of her party is my local MP Kirsten Oswald. I hesitate to write this because I like her, but her name has come up again and again in stories about the SNP’s finances over recent weeks:
When Douglas Chapman resigned as the SNP’s Treasurer complaining he wasn’t getting access to the figures it was Oswald who responded by saying “I am disappointed by Douglas’ decision and, as business convener, fundamentally disagree with his assessment of the support and financial information available to him.”
When it emerged that Keith Brown had attempted to improve transparency around SNP finances but was blocked back in 2021, sources blamed Oswald and Peter Murrell for opposing the move.
When Iain Blackford was questioned on whether he had told Stephen Flynn about the SNP Group’s loss of auditors, he said “the person that has responsibility under my guidance, under my leadership for staff matters, for financial matters was my deputy Kirsten Oswald.”
When Joanna Cherry’s letter complaining about the culture around financial transparency in the SNP was leaked, it turned out it was addressed to Kirsten Oswald.
With Keith Brown, Iain Blackford and SNP President Mike Russell having spoken out, other than Nicola Sturgeon Oswald is one of the only SNP leadership figures from the critical period not to have gone on the record about how the party got to this point.
Unlike Nicola Sturgeon, there has been no suggestion in the media that she is of interest to the police investigation, so there can be no excuse for her silence on these issues.
Coming soon: What do voters make of all this?
The polls suggest voters are starting to turn away from the SNP amid this ongoing crisis. A new YouGov poll sees Labour closing the gap with the SNP in Holyrood voting intentions by nine points. 39% of voters think Yousaf is incompetent. Just 26% think him competent.
Polls give you headline statistics, they won’t tell you why people came to the views they hold. Thanks to paid subscribers to this newsletter, Notes on Nationalism is about to publish our first big project. We are holding focus groups with disaffected former SNP voters.
The videos from the discussions with these voters will offer insights into why voters are losing faith in the SNP, what they make of the change in leadership, and how is this crisis shaping their views.
Paid subscribers will get full access to the full range of videos and accompanying analysis, which we hope to share in a few days’ time.
You can become a paid subscriber here. As ever, every penny will go towards new content. This remains an unpaid hobby for me!
In case you missed it…
John Ferry has an excellent piece on how nearly half of SNP members voting for Kate Forbes shatters the nationalist frame of conservatism being something alien to Scotland.
More confirmation that the SNP have dropped what was supposed to be their defining mission.
After several days, The National still has a claim online that the last Labour governments didn’t build a single ferry. This is despite the fact that ten were commissioned in that time - one-third of the current fleet!