Euan McColm: SNP's shambolic handling of complaints undermines confidence

The allegations are disturbing. The alleged response is hard to comprehend. When a member of SNP staff accused two of the party’s MPs of sexual harassment, he should have been treated with sensitivity and compassion while his claims were investigated.

Patrick Grady has stepped aside as the SNP’s chief whip at Westminster after a formal complaint was made against him

Rather, the young man in question alleges that he was called to a meeting with the Nationalists’ Westminster leader, Ian Blackford, to discuss the issue – only to discover that one of the MPs about whom he had complained was sitting on a sofa, crying. The politician offered an apology, says the employee.

The complainer is quite correct to describe this scenario as an ambush and we are entitled to wonder what the hell Blackford was playing at.

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We now know that one of the MPs the staffer raised concerns about – and who is said to have been in Blackford’s office during the meeting – is Patrick Grady, the SNP’s chief whip at Westminster. We also know the first incident is alleged to have taken place in 2016, the year before Grady was put in charge of party discipline in the House of Commons.

SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford spoke to the complainant in his office

There had now been a formal complaint against Grady (though not against the second MP, a woman, about whom the party staffer has spoken) and the SNP is, finally, investigating.

Grady has stepped aside as chief whip for the time being. A party spokesman said that after receipt of a formal complaint, “due process” could now take place and there would be no further comment while the investigation is underway.

The SNP might hope this is enough to quell discussion of this situation. It should not be.

We are entitled to ask what the hell senior party figures have been playing at, and whether they simply hoped this troubling situation might be swept under the carpet.

It is especially shocking to hear the allegation that Grady was present when the staff member was called to Blackford’s office.

Whether the complaint was “formal” or not at that stage is neither here nor there. This was an appalling misjudgement, an abuse of power that would have left a complainer feeling huge pressure to accept an apology as an end to the matter.

If we are to accept the complainer’s version of events – the SNP says the description of the meeting is “inaccurate” but offers no further clarification – then it is very difficult to escape the conclusion that the party would prefer to have swept this matter under the carpet.

That Grady continued in his role as chief whip tells us this was not a problem taken seriously enough by the SNP leadership.

But, then. should we be surprised if this is so?

Early last year, Scotland’s then finance secretary, Derek Mackay, stepped down from the role after it was revealed that he he had been bombarding a 16-year-old boy with text messages of an intimate nature.

The initial response from party leader Nicola Sturgeon’s office to media inquiries about Mackay was to question the right of newspapers to publish details of the texts.

This clumsy, heavy-handed attempt to prevent publication doesn’t sing of a party committed to doing right by those making complaints about its politicians.

That a year later there is no news of the outcome of a promised disciplinary inquiry into Mackay gives weight to the idea that the SNP would rather these matters were forgotten rather than addressed.

The SNP’s attitude towards sexual harassment has been thrown into sharp focus recently by the Alex Salmond inquiry. The collapse of a Scottish Government investigation into complaints made by two workers at the Scottish Parliament against the former first minister has opened a deep, running sore in the party.

Many Salmond supporters – some of them elected members – choose not to take seriously the idea that two women had genuine concerns about his behaviour, preferring to support a narrative that positions Sturgeon’s predecessor as the victim of a politically motivated plot to bring him down.

The SNP rose to political prominence while questioning the morality of its opponents. Labour and the Conservatives, went the party’s attacks, were bogged down in sleaze. They were secretive and self-interested and only the SNP could be depended upon to offer a new, clean and decent politics.

This was a seductive story to an electorate made weary by political scandals. Who wouldn’t want to be led by men and women who maintained the highest personal standards in all that they say and do?

But the SNP clearly doesn’t maintain the highest standards when it comes to handling complaints made about its own elected members. No amount of clever spin can erase the evidence that this is so.

In recent years, we have begun to discuss the abuse of power. The “Me Too” movement shone a light on dark behaviour of men in the media, business and politics. We are encouraged to take seriously complaints of abusive behaviour, to believe victims, and to ensure that appropriate action is taken to address allegations of impropriety.

If we are to bring about real and meaningful change to the culture of the workplace and across wider society, powerful organisations – be they newspapers, corporations, or political parties – have a duty not only to act swiftly and appropriately when complaints are received but also to ensure that they are seen to be doing so.

The mess of the Alex Salmond inquiry will have done nothing to encourage women that they should feel confident about speaking up.

The SNP’s handling of this latest scandal will only further undermine confidence in a system that still seems heavily weighted against anyone who dares speak up.