ON AUGUST 12, 2012 – two months before the Edinburgh Agreement was reached – a press release landed on news editors’ desks, announcing the launch of a new campaign group: Women for Independence.
The press release was relatively low-key. The group, it said, had been born out of a recognition that women’s voices were missing from the referendum debate. But the potential impact of the organisation could be seen from a glance down the list of founding members: former Scottish Socialist Party MSPs Carolyn Leckie and Rosie Kane and SNP activists, Isobel Lindsay, Jeane Freeman, Kate Higgins, Susan Stewart and Natalie McGarry – all experienced campaigners with big personalities. Right from the get-go, they had a clear vision of what the group would stand for: it would be cross-party, it would be genuinely grassroots, it would be the kind of place where women could talk freely without having their opinions trashed, and, most importantly, it would function on trust. As the referendum campaign gathered momentum, those involved were given a lot of autonomy – they wrote leaflets, made speeches and organised events, without anyone really checking up on what they were doing.
This model proved remarkably successful. Women for Independence quickly grew, with local groups springing up across the country. It successfully changed the public discourse, politicised a large number of Scottish women and whipped up more support for a Yes vote (the proportion of women backing independence rose from 22 per cent to 40 per cent at the time of the referendum). It launched the Justice Watch and Media Watch campaigns and waged war on poverty through food and school uniform banks. Money, raised chiefly through crowdfunding, poured in and numbers swelled. However, there were, arguably, also downsides to its informality and lack of hierarchy.
Outside observers have described it as “ad hoc”, “structureless” and “chaotic”. If insurgency was part of its appeal then it was also a potential pitfall.
Last week, Women for Independence announced it had been forced to call in Police Scotland to investigate £30,000 of missing donations. At the centre of the unexplained “financial discrepancies” is McGarry, now MP for Glasgow East, who is believed to be the only person with access to the PayPal account into which the relevant donations were paid. She is said to have handed Women for Independence a cheque for a four-figure sum shortly before the police were called.
McGarry has resigned the SNP whip, and so been suspended from the party, but she denies any wrongdoing. She has locked her Twitter account, and deleted all previous tweets, but is still communicating with constituents and others via her FaceBook page.
Within Women for Independence, the discovery of apparent financial discrepancies has been met with disbelief followed by a deep sense of betrayal, but outside, tough questions are being asked about the way it ran its affairs. How is it possible for £30,000 to be unaccounted for? What kind of safeguards were put in place to ensure public donations were used for the purposes intended?
To put it more bluntly, was the emphasis on trust at Women for Independence frankly naive?
The scandal – which reduces the number of SNP MPs from 56 to 54 – also has major implications for the party. Coming so soon after Edinburgh West MP Michelle Thomson resigned the whip over her own travails, it raises fresh doubts about the rigour of the SNP’s vetting procedures.
There are questions too over whether or not the party should have acted more quickly over McGarry. It is understood the financial discrepancies did not surface until late summer, several months after the general election, and that WFI didn’t formally notify the SNP until it called in the police last week. But, given there are no fewer than seven SNP candidates for Holyrood on the WFI’s national committee, it is impossible to believe the party was not aware of concerns over finances; and indeed the party has already admitted as much.
Even when the matter had been passed to the police, the party seemed to be paralysed, with Nicola Sturgeon claiming she needed more details before she could act (until McGarry’s decision to resign the whip effectively took the matter out of her hands).
Back in August 2012, McGarry was arguably the least well-known of the founding WFI members. At 31, she lacked the public profile of Leckie or Kane, or the clout of Freeman and Stewart, but she had a strong political pedigree. Her mother Alice is a councillor in Fife and her aunt is Tricia Marwick, the presiding officer at Holyrood. And she had forged a reputation as a committed SNP activist. As the referendum campaign heated up, her exposure soared; she became a fixture on the campaign trail, a regular on current affairs programmes, and she stood unsuccessfully for the SNP in the Cowdenbeath Scottish Parliamentary by-election in January 2014. After the referendum, she was selected as a candidate for Glasgow East in the general election, where despite Labour’s best efforts she unseated shadow Scottish secretary Margaret Curran (beating her 24,116 votes to 13,729). McGarry was articulate, funny and good at attracting publicity to the cause, but she could also be abrasive and impolitic and had a habit of letting her mouth run away with her. Twitter spats were common. Some of those spats centred on her relationship with across-the-political-barricades Tory councillor David Meikle, now her fiancé. Days before the WFI scandal broke, she was berating Daily Record editor Murray Foote – with some justification – for alluding to the relationship in connection with tweets McGarry had sent lambasting the Tories. While there is no doubt McGarry was on the receiving end of some deplorable trolling, her critics believed she quite liked playing the victim. When the locks of her campaign office were superglued during the general election campaign, she announced that she “would not be silenced” (as if anyone could have imagined she would).
All this goes some way to explaining why news of her role at the centre of the WFI affair has been met with such glee in some quarters. For unionist ultras, it would have been glorious enough to have any SNP MP in trouble so soon after Thomson, but the fact it was McGarry was manna from heaven. When she resigned the whip, the schadenfreude was unconfined: as one Tweeter began a rendition of a Ten Green Bottles-inspired countdown (there were 56 SNP MPs in the House of Commons, there were...you get the gist) others pointed out ex-SNP MPs were now the second biggest block of Scottish MPs at Westminster. Predictably, photographs of Meikle on a balcony waving an Israeli flag – an in-joke amongst Scottish politicos – started appearing once more.
McGarry was not, however, unpopular within the WFI movement. Her energy, enthusiasm and commitment to the cause were all assets for a burgeoning movement which relied on members giving generously of their own time. So when concerns first began to surface, everyone hoped the apparent financial discrepancies could be easily explained.
The missing donations at the centre of the inquiry pre-date the referendum; after September 18 last year, when new members began flooding in and it became clear there was a desire for WFI to keep going, efforts were made to put the group on a more formal footing, with founder members committed to creating a democratic structure that did not replicate the hierarchy of political parties. It decided individuals would pay to be members and vote for the national committee. The local groups would be affiliated, but autonomous. Earlier this year, a constitution was adopted and more robust financial systems introduced.
Before that, however, it is understood money for specific projects was raised through crowdfunding with those involved trusted to deliver on their promises. In late summer, under the new financial systems, someone noticed a discrepancy between income and expenditure in the PayPal account – and began to investigate.
An internal audit, involving two WFI members and a chartered accountant, was carried out and questions asked of McGarry, but, when matters couldn’t be resolved, the organisation had no choice but to act. The national committee met on Sunday afternoon and contacted the police later the same day. In an email sent to members on Sunday night, the committee members said they now had “reason to believe trust may have been abused”. It said it had exhausted all opportunities of obtaining adequate evidence or explanation to account for the discrepancy it had uncovered.
WFI also informed the SNP. Yet, when the story broke on Monday morning, Sturgeon still appeared to be on the back foot. Under pressure to suspend McGarry, she continued to insist she didn’t have enough information to make a decision, while critics wondered aloud what more she could require. By the time McGarry finally resigned the whip, even stalwart SNP supporters were getting anxious over the First Minister’s dithering.
The poor handling of the Thomson saga had already highlighted both the PR vacuum left by the departure of SNP spin doctor Kevin Pringle and the way the sudden surge of popularity it experienced after the referendum left the SNP struggling to vet its would-be general election candidates as thoroughly as it might have liked. As discussed in the wake of Thomson’s suspension, the system relied heavily on candidates disclosing anything in their past which might bring the party into disrepute. Of course, relatively speaking, McGarry was a known quantity with a track record of activism, but other candidates were new members who joined up during or after the referendum.
Sturgeon and her cabinet must be nervously wondering how many other skeletons might fall out of the collective closet; and whether the vetting of the party’s MSP candidates was more rigorous, as the SNP looks set to hoover up most of the constituency seats at Holyrood.
More generally, the affair also highlights some of the risks around crowdfunding, which is becoming an increasingly popular means of funding new organisations and projects. Although the benefits are obvious – members of the public can give small amounts to help pet projects get off the ground – donors have little way of guaranteeing that their money will be used in the manner stipulated or that those collecting the money have rigorous financial systems in place.
Last month, independence activist Stuart Campbell, who also raised money through Crowdfunding, was fined £750 by the Electoral Commission for failing to provide receipts and invoices relating to campaign expenditure.
The issue for WFI – and those who support it – is whether or not it can survive the fall-out from the police inquiry. From its inception the group has seen itself as a dual-purpose organisation which is as much about campaigning for women as for independence (indeed its full name is Women for Independence – Independence for Women). Those involved say that after the No Vote was returned, members were resolute: though they still believed independence was the best way to achieve equality for women, they would go on trying to fix what they could within the existing system; in the past year they have set up grassroots anti-poverty projects and spearheaded a campaign which led to the Scottish government scrapping its plans for a new £75m women’s prison in Inverclyde.
WFI continues to be genuinely cross-party; some members belong to the SNP, the Greens or Rise, some are Labour supporters (though not Labour members) and some have no party political affiliations.
Though they are devastated by what has happened, those at the heart of WFI are convinced the group will carry on with its work regardless of the outcome of the police inquiry, and insist future donors can be assured that the financial systems now in place will be robust. WFI’s emphasis on democracy, inclusivity and respectful debate may endure, but – with the police inquiry ongoing – it seems likely the trust that was the hallmark of the early days will be difficult to rebuild.