Dani Garavelli: ‘Bring-me-the-head-of-Malcolm-Tucker dire’

Nicola Sturgeon introduces members of her ministerial team at Bute House, including Gillian Martin, third from right
Nicola Sturgeon introduces members of her ministerial team at Bute House, including Gillian Martin, third from right
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The reshuffle debacle shows something has gone seriously awry with the SNP’s slick spin machine, writes Dani Garavelli.

There was a time, or so I am told, when the SNP was so paranoid about the image it projected that an MSP was given a dressing down for expressing an interest in attending a tongue-in-cheek anti-monarchy event on the day of the 2011 Royal Wedding.

Back then, the party’s control freakery was often mocked as excessive. But, boy, could it have used a dose of that last week when a long-overdue reshuffle was transformed from a PR opportunity to a PR disaster.

At the epicentre of the disaster was the appointment of Gillian Martin as university minister, only for her to be dumped after a couple of blog posts she wrote back in 2007 re-entered the public domain.

Though the views in those posts were less-than-palatable – one of them referred to “hairy-knuckled, lipstick wearing transgender laydees”, the other suggested black men were poor tippers – I have a degree of sympathy for Martin. Those words were written 11 years ago and people whose judgment I trust say her anti-diversity comments are at odds with the politician they have come to know. She has an impressive track record as an MSP, particularly on period poverty, and would no doubt have been a capable junior minister.

But the handling of her appointment – the failure to foresee her blog posts would be problematic because equality and diversity are near the top of the Scottish Government’s agenda, the issuing of the cack-handed apology, and boxing themselves into a position where they had no choice but to drop Martin at the very last minute – suggests something is awry at the heart of the SNP spin machine

Even before the Martin debacle, the signs were there. First of all there was John Swinney’s apparent attempt to bury the shelving of his flagship Education Reform Bill by announcing it on the day of the reshuffle. Then, there was an unnecessarily long gap between the announcement of the first departures and the announcement of the first appointments. This allowed the treatment of Keith Brown, who was sacked as economy secretary, despite insisting he could combine the cabinet post with his new role of deputy leader, and Shona Robison, who was either sacked or stood down as health secretary, to dominate the agenda.

As the minutes turned into hours, the news vacuum was filled with Labour politicians and spin doctors gloating and picking over the corpses of the newly departed. There was plenty of time for an outpouring of faux concern over Brown’s £30,000-plus drop in salary, a reprisal of all the gory details of Robison’s domestic life and some musing over the toll Nicola Sturgeon’s decision to replace her might take on their long-standing personal friendship.

In the end, the reshuffle, which had already been delayed a year by Theresa May’s snap general election, dragged into Wednesday, when the junior ministers were finally announced. It was then that the whole shebang moved from mildly shambolic to bring-me-the-head-of-Malcolm-Tucker dire.

Even if Martin’s blog – called Misssy M Misssives and written while she was a college lecturer – had been stowed at the back of her closet, there would have been little excuse for the party not to be aware of their existence; candidates for the role of MSP are supposed to undergo close vetting, where they reveal any information that might prove problematic at a later date.

But the existence of the blog posts was not a secret: in fact the one about the “hairy-knuckled laydees” emerged in the run-up to the Holyrood election in 2016 when Liberal Democrat rival Christine Jardine used it to challenge Martin’s suitability as a candidate.

So why wasn’t this revelation followed up to see if there was more where it came from? And why wasn’t it all flagged up as an almost inevitable source of embarrassment in advance of the reshuffle? That way, perhaps, if she remained committed to appointing Martin, Sturgeon could have gone in armed with a strategy to counter criticism from opponents, many of whom are no great champions of the transgender community, but are happy enough to pretend they’re “woke” if they spy a scalp ripe for the claiming.

No matter how much you want to credit Martin for her work post-election, some of her posts were offensive. Written when she was 39, they cannot be downplayed as a youthful folly.

The one that had already come to public attention is a diatribe which mocks universities for allegedly exploiting students from minority groups, including those who are blind, to gain funds and bolster their right-on credentials. It goes on to suggest transgender students are “the next funding and publicity cash cow” and refers to the EU’s “tranny trove”.

Given LGBTI issues are at the heart of the SNP’s policy-making and given transgenderism is currently the most flammable of topics, it is hard to see how the party ever thought Martin’s appointment would pass unremarked.

And yet, once the storm broke, it allowed the Aberdeenshire East MSP to issue a hastily penned apology in which she averred: “I expressed myself in a way that did not reflect my view then and certain [sic] does not reflect my view now.” The obvious riposte to that – so obvious it should have been predicted – was: “If you weren’t sincere back then, why should anyone believe you now?”

A better approach would surely have been to have talked about Martin’s “journey”. The MSP could have explained how the indyref politicised her; how reading up on trans issues had brought her to a greater understanding of the issue (claims, incidentally, many in the party believe to be the truth). Meanwhile, others could have told how she pushed for Women for Independence to be trans-inclusive; they could have highlighted the worthwhile issues she has campaigned on.

In the hours after the Times story about the blog was published on Thursday morning, the First Minister stuck to her guns; it was only at midday – an hour after her office was informed of the “black people don’t tip” comments – that it became clear Martin’s name had been taken off the list. By then, of course, Sturgeon must have known opposition MSPs planned to oppose her appointment when asked to endorse the new ministers .

The furore has serious personal consequences for Martin, who has faced public humiliation, and it has overshadowed some of the better reshuffle news: the appointment of the widely respected Jeane Freeman as health secretary, for example, and the replacement of the underwhelming mental health minister Maureen Watt with Clare Haughey, a psychiatric nurse, who still works on a voluntary basis in her spare time.

More seriously, perhaps, because recess has already begun, it means the Scottish Government will spend the summer, the time when students receive their exam results and university admissions are finalised, without a university minister.

Though it is possible to argue opposition MSPs behaved cynically, it is nevertheless a political and PR cock-up that you can’t imagine happening just a few years ago. It makes you wonder if it’s not just the cabinet and junior ministers that are in need of a good shake-up.