SNP paying price for its Stalinist culture of spin, secrecy and deceit

By Graham Grant

FOR New Labour, it was a psychodrama between two big beasts that led to the painful demise of a project that dominated British politics for 13 years.

Now the SNP is heading in the same direction amid a growing civil war between the rival camps of Nicola Sturgeon and her former mentor Alex Salmond.

What began as tension and escalated to a kind of war by Press release has morphed into a damaging rift, as the First Minister accuses her predecessor of a smear campaign over a Scottish Government investigation into sexual misconduct allegations against him.

That investigation was, of course, exposed as unlawful last week at the Court of Session in Edinburgh, when it emerged the investigating officer had ‘prior involvement’ with the two female complainants (although a police probe continues).

This was an embarrassment for Miss Sturgeon and her Permanent Secretary Leslie Evans, who faced calls to quit.

But there are wider repercussions for the party, and indeed the broader independence movement.

It seems increasingly likely that the seeds have been sown for the First Minister’s downfall, and her tenure is now approaching a final act that will end not just her career, but also any remaining hope of realising her party’s separatist mission.

Last week, former Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill, consigned to the backbenches by Miss Sturgeon, warned of a ‘witch hunt’ against Mr Salmond, while former top SNP spin doctor Kevin Pringle has demanded an ‘external inquiry’.

For a party that for many years prided itself on ‘message discipline’ of Stalinist proportions, crushing any dissent from the established line, these are extraordinary interventions, showing that Miss Sturgeon’s once unchallenged authority is beginning to crumble.

But we must also see the First Minister’s current predicament as a by-product of a deep-rooted culture of secrecy, which began at party level and is now entrenched in the machinery of government – and throughout the public sector.

Censorship, redaction, flagrant abuse of freedom of information (FOI) laws, and a default tendency towards obfuscation at all costs, are all hallmarks of Nationalist politics, and have been for years.

Miss Sturgeon has spoken many times of the need to ensure the allegations against Mr Salmond were not ‘swept under the carpet’; in fact that carpet is positively mountainous after nearly 12 years of Nationalist hegemony.

It barely conceals all manner of controversies the SNP sought to minimise or bury, with varying degrees of success, given the myriad policy failures that have dogged the party’s time in government.

In 2011, it emerged that Mr Salmond had spent £100,000 of taxpayers’ money on a court battle to block the publication of a document spelling out the financial implications of his local income tax plans.

Now he has lodged a complaint with the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) into fears of a data protection breach, after details of the allegations against him were leaked to a newspaper.

To call for complete openness about the workings of government after having tried to keep a lid on them, at considerable public expense, requires a brass neck, or a monstrous ego – and Mr Salmond has plentiful supplies of both.

Double act: but the party is now riven by a split between its two biggest beasts

The hypocrisy doesn’t stop there: Miss Sturgeon’s attack on alleged Salmond leaks to Murdoch newspapers would hold rather more water if she hadn’t met the media tycoon in New York in 2015.

She was strangely coy about that summit, and failed to mention it at the time in a self-publicising newspaper diary detailing her trip – perhaps fearing the backlash from her Left-wing powerbase, who regard Mr Murdoch as a hate figure.

Mr Salmond, when he was First Minister, attempted to lavish free gifts on the media mogul – and even offered him exclusive TV rights of a flagship public event.

Then again, he was also somewhat smitten by Donald Trump before a falling-out about wind farms left that alliance in ruins; after all, politics is full of fairweather friends.

It’s also full of shadowy spinners of the kind parodied in The Thick Of It, the BBC TV political satire, where special advisers – so-called Spads – are constantly engaged in behind-the-scenes skulduggery aimed at limiting the reputational damage to their bosses of the latest ‘omnishambles’.

The First Minister’s ‘spin team’ grew from ten in June 2016 to 14 in November 2017 – at a cost to the taxpayer of £1,045,486, up from £897,714 the previous year.

Spads continue to vet FOI replies, while it was revealed last year that journalists and political researchers were being treated differently to members of the public when requesting data.

This was a practice brought in by Miss Sturgeon soon after she was appointed First Minister – having pledged that her Government would be ‘open, listening, accessible and decentralising’.

One member of the Sturgeon inner circle now thrust into the spotlight is her chief of staff Liz Lloyd, who arranged the initial meeting between her boss, held at her home near Glasgow in April 2018, and Mr Salmond, and she was present as the pair spoke about the claims against him.

Indeed, it was here that Mr Salmond is said to have revealed for the first time that he was under investigation by the Scottish Government over sexual misconduct allegations dating back to his time as First Minister.

But Miss Sturgeon did not record basic facts of the meeting, or include it in her monthly list of engagements – triggering a row which led to her self-referral to standards watchdogs on Sunday.

There were claims yesterday Miss Sturgeon was aware of the claims before she met Mr Salmond in April last year – when she maintains she first found out about them.

It was also alleged that Miss Lloyd advised Mr Salmond in March last year – using an intermediary – not to stand for election because of the sexual harassment allegations made against him.

These claims were dismissed by the SNP as part of the Murdoch-enabled smear campaign against Miss Sturgeon.

She has admitted she held three meetings with Mr Salmond and took two phone calls in which they discussed the allegations; and yet Police Scotland was only informed last August – eight months after the initial complaints were made.

Detectives will want to know the content of those conversations between Mr Salmond and Miss Sturgeon, which according to legal sources raises the possibility of the First Minister, and indeed some of her coterie of advisers, facing police interview.

Today, MSPs will meet to discuss a formal parliamentary probe into this most unedifying of scandals.

Like New Labour, the SNP is now riven at the highest levels by a dysfunctional relationship between its two most influential figures.

But it is also paying the price for years of obsessive spin and secrecy – sacrificing the openness and accountability Miss Sturgeon once promised in the name of electoral survival.

The days when she enjoyed rock-star welcomes at stadia full of unquestioning loyalists are a distant memory – as the chickens come home to roost at Bute House.

*This column appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on January 15, 2019.

Home Affairs Editor, columnist, leader writer, Scottish Daily Mail. Twitter: @GrahamGGrant Facebook: @sdmnewspaper