Euan McColm: T in the Park row too much for Nats

The 2015 T in the Park festival received government funding. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

The 2015 T in the Park festival received government funding. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

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SANCTIMONY is such a risky thing in which to indulge. The danger of being exposed as a hypocrite is incalculably huge.

But being holier-than-thou is all the rage with the Scottish National Party: it has placed morality at the very heart of its crusade.

Yes, of course all politicians believe their policies to be morally just, but the SNP always goes that bit further, attacking what it sees as a lack of decency in its opponents. Their behaviour is invariably “shameful” or “unforgivable”, rather than simply “wrong”. If I had a quid for every time an SNP politician declared that “the Scottish people would never forgive this betrayal”…

This moralising approach is part of the SNP’s story that it exists outside the normal, awful world of politics; that it’s a rebellious force standing apart from the establishment, a true voice of the people rather than the slick political machine it undoubtedly is. The SNP would have us believe that it operates differently to Labour or the Conservatives. Those parties are part of the old politics of sneaky deals and cronyism. They’ve lost touch with ordinary people. They have their snouts in the trough, you see, rather than focusing on the interests of their constituents.

The curious case of the Scottish Government handing over £150,000 to the promoters of the T in the Park music festival threatens, understandably, to seriously damage the SNP’s carefully constructed facade.

Culture secretary Fiona Hyslop signed off the grant just a few days before the festival, which took place at Strathallan Castle last month. This she did following a meeting with ­Geoff Ellis, the boss of DF Concerts, which promoted the event.

And this is where things get especially interesting.

The meeting was organised by Jennifer Dempsie, who was working for DF as a project manager. Dempsie is a former special adviser to Alex Salmond and hopes to win selection as an SNP candidate for next year’s Holy­rood election. She was employed on a short-term contract by DF to assist with the festival’s move to Strathallan from its former home at Balado in Perth and Kinross.

The grant was made to assist with the relocation of the event despite the fact that DF concerts is 78 per cent owned by London-based LN-Gaiety Holdings, which last year had a turnover of £167 million and pre-tax profits of £9m.

According to Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie, the payment to DF raised questions about cronyism involving the SNP and its supporters, while Scottish Labour’s culture spokeswoman, Claire Baker, wrote to Hyslop that, given the success of T in the Park, there was a question over why any public cash should have been handed over.

The Scottish Government was bullish about the matter, saying that the music festival was one of Scotland’s most popular and successful annual cultural events, supporting jobs and – last year – generating £15.4m for the Scottish economy.

This, though, was a curious defence: if the question is about why public money was handed over to a private company then the fact that the private company in question is such a success surely supports the case of those who have concerns about it? This was no lifeline to a struggling Scottish organisation; it did not save at-risk jobs. Instead, it was a tidy chunk of cash given to a company that is in rude health.

Friends of Dempsie’s say she is the victim of cheap, politically motivated attacks and that she did nothing wrong in brokering the deal between Ellis and Hyslop. Those chums would very much like this to be about the cynicism of opposition parties. They would like to cast doubt on the morality of the Labour, Lib Dem, and Tory attacks over the deal.

Unfortunately, however, a former leader of the SNP has popped up to jigger that particular story.

Gordon Wilson claimed that Dempsie had “personally lost credibility” over the issue and said the Scottish Government should toughen its stance on lobbyists.

Wilson said Dempsie should be called by the SNP’s National Executive Committee to explain herself.

Given the party’s success at Holyrood and Westminster, the code of conduct to be reviewed, he said. These were times of “austerity” and the criteria for spending public money should be stringent.

Wilson’s intervention ensures that this matter – which is now dancing around the edges of scandal – continues to be difficult for the SNP. It cannot simply be dismissed as a case of nasty opposition opportunism when a man who led the party for 11 years says there’s a problem. Some SNP insiders dismiss Wilson as out of touch and bitter that the party is a success these days while it languished in the polls while be was at the helm between 1979 and 1990.

But that is a recklessly complacent thing to do.

Those in the SNP who would dismiss the T in the Park grant row as something and nothing should pause to imagine what their response would have been had former first minister Jack McConnell handed over public money to a private company after a meeting brokered by one of his colleagues in the Labour party.

The nationalists would not have ignored this as a straightforward matter. They’d have cried cronyism, said this was the sort of behaviour that was turning people away from Labour, and demanded answers, none of which would ever have sufficed. The nationalists would have made it a matter of morality. They’d have wrung every last drop of outrage out of it.

And they’d have gained traction because, in fact, there are legitimate questions to be asked about such a hand-out.

T in the Park would have gone ahead without the Scottish Government handing £150,000 of taxpayers’ cash to organisers. This cosy deal looks bad and smells bad.

Perhaps the most surprising thing is that the oh-so-moral SNP didn’t recognise this.

After all, as Gordon Wilson said last week, a party’s reputation is more easily lost than gained.

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