Allan Massie: SNP has to be wary of arrogance

Nicola Sturgeon's party has criticised others for failings that it itself is now falling into. Picture: Neil Hanna
Nicola Sturgeon's party has criticised others for failings that it itself is now falling into. Picture: Neil Hanna
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STURGEON has no fear of laziness from her party, but there are signs of complacency creeping in, writes Allan Massie

The last few days have not been the SNP’s finest. One story is merely amusing. The report that Alex Salmond was briefly prevented from boarding a BA flight from Heathrow because his passport didn’t match the name under which he had booked his ticket – James T Kirk, the captain of Star Trek’s spaceship Enterprise – will have made many smile. Apparently he does this quite often – “for security reasons” – but they know him at Gatwick and London City airports and just wave him through, doubtless into the VIP lounge. The explanation – that he does this for security reasons, with the implication that his name on a passenger list might provoke an outrage – only adds to the comedy.

This is unimportant. The Michelle Thomson and T in the Park affairs are rather different. There’s no suggestion, so far as I can see, that Ms Thomson has done anything illegal, no suggestion that she has been engaged in any mortgage fraud. Nevertheless she is said to have bought properties below market price from what are described as “vulnerable people” then quickly sold them on at a handsome profit, and this, if true, is at least sharp and shabby behaviour. The trouble is that Ms Thomson was made very welcome in the SNP on account of her business success.

Then there’s the continuing saga of T in the Park and the £150,000 Scottish Government grant to the profitable private company that runs the music festival. The culture secretary has explained that the grant was necessary because, without it, the company might have taken the festival away from Scotland. Presumably she believes this; others are somewhat sceptical. Still the grant – not a big deal in the context of public spending – might have gone unremarked if Jennifer Dempsie, the lobbyist who approached the culture secretary, wasn’t herself a SNP insider: a former special adviser to Alex Salmond and currently the partner of Angus Robertson, the SNP’s parliamentary leader at Westminster. Now Ms Dempsie did nothing wrong or even improper; lobbyists are employed to make their client’s case. Nevertheless there is a whiff of cronyism here, the sort of thing for which in, for example, the Glasgow Labour Party, the SNP has expressed high-minded disapproval.

Now Scotland is a small country, like the Republic of Ireland where in Fianna Fail’s heyday cronyism, with touches of corruption, was endemic. One should add that things like this, and very much worse ones, go on in all political/cultural Establishments; and the SNP is now very clearly the Establishment here in Scotland. It dominates public life and any ambitious young person in business, academia, or the professions is likely to see the sense of cultivating good relations with the party – just as for decades in Glasgow and Lanarkshire it did people no harm to be associated with Labour. In a small country where people who hope to matter find it quite easy to get to know those who already matter, “scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” may be the norm.

As scandals go, the Thomson and T in the Park affairs are small beer. But they should sound a warning to Nicola Sturgeon and those around her. Insignificant in themselves as they may be, they still cast a shadow. The SNP has made much of its difference from other parties. It presents itself as the voice of Scotland and the conscience of the nation, a party of high ideals. It has been loud in its condemnation of what it happily calls “Westminster sleaze”. It claims to represent a different sort of politics. So, more than most, it can’t afford to look grubby. Michelle Thomson is likely to be cleared of any illegality. Nevertheless the mere accusation that she has been ripping off “vulnerable people” will stick. She has, for the time being, resigned the SNP whip in the Commons. Will she be invited back when the dust settles, as dust usually does? Or will the verdict be that she has tainted the brand?

Ms Sturgeon will be conscious that the SNP, being a movement as well as a political party, depends more than other parties on trust. (Lots of people vote Tory without actually liking the Conservative Party because they think it generally sound on the economy and defence; but the SNP is different; it’s a cause to be advanced). In an interview with the glossy magazine GQ, Ms Sturgeon says: “I feel sorry for generations of Labour voters and supporters who must look and wonder what has gone wrong and what Labour is for.” She adds: “In Scotland, it’s not rocket science. Labour got lazy, complacent, arrogant, and lost any sense of purpose.” Nobody could accuse the SNP of being lazy – not yet anyway – and it certainly hasn’t lost its sense of purpose, but she might be well-advised to dwell on the two other adjectives she applies to the Scottish Labour Party: complacent and arrogant.

The sense of moral superiority, which the SNP undoubtedly feels and displays, can very easily lead to both complacency and arrogance. We are good, our intentions admirable: so what we do must be right. The T in the Park story exemplifies this attitude: A SNP insider, doing her job for her client, asks for a grant and gets it: would that grant have been made if the lobbyist had no links to the party? Michelle Thomson is praised by the party for her business acumen and success, is approved as an election candidate, and wins a seat. Now it appears that part of her business success takes the form of ripping off “vulnerable people”. This hardly fits with the SNP’s promotion of itself as a party opposed to “austerity”.

The SNP is in a remarkably strong position. Its rivals have been floored. It will win another majority in next May’s Holyrood election, a bigger one than it has enjoyed in the present parliament. These two mini-scandals will do it no damage, no immediate damage certainly. But they should serve as a warning. “Labour got lazy, complacent and arrogant”. There’s no sign of laziness in the SNP, but complacency and arrogance? These are more dangerous than the opposition parties. Complacency and arrogance breed corruption, corruption of the spirit most of all.