Gerry Hassan: Sturgeon gaffe a sign of changing times for SNP

THE saga of Nicola Sturgeon and her support for a serial fraudster has to be considered on at least three levels.

First, it is about Ms Sturgeon's judgment, but it also throws revealing light on how the SNP government is faring and how we represent, reflect and enact our politics.

The health secretary and deputy first minister is a thoroughly competent, talented, streetwise politician and minister. Her writing a letter of support for Abdul Rauf, a constituent of hers, before he was sentenced for 80,000 of benefit fraud, does seem questionable.

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To claim, as Ms Sturgeon and First Minister Alex Salmond have done, that this was "a duty", as if she had no choice, is either naivety in the extreme, or presuming the public can be easily confused. Instead, as Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray and others have said, this is "a question of judgment" and how you use your "discretion", both of which seem to have deserted Ms Sturgeon here.

But this episode taps into the wider question of how the SNP is doing in office. Ms Sturgeon's mistake comes after the calamity of "Lunchgate", where the SNP sold dinners in the Scottish Parliament's premises for party funds, with the aim of raising 9,000 for the honour of lunch with Mr Salmond and 2,000 with Ms Sturgeon.

Meanwhile, the party has seen its political momentum stall with the referendum bill hitting difficulties, while Fiona Hyslop had to be moved from education to get her out of trouble. Suddenly, the SNP seems vulnerable. For a while, Mr Salmond seemed untouchable, but since the 2007 election, the normal rules of politics have not been suspended. For all the SNP honeymoon, there has been no realignment of Scottish politics post-2007. The next Scottish election, even more than the Westminster poll, will be tight and its outcome open.

Underlying this latest episode and "Lunchgate" is a deeper and seldom talked about problem, namely, the relationship of the SNP and Labour to the Glasgow Asian community. There is something profoundly unseemly in how both parties have courted Asian money, influence and votes in the west of Scotland and in the way parts of the Asian community conducts its politics.

There is a long list controversies: MP Mohammed Sarwar elected, charged and then found innocent; years of bitter Labour infighting with Sarwar's son, Anas, selected to succeed him; Osama Saeed and the Scottish Islamic Foundation and concerns about the scale of its funding and the probity of its finances; allegations about packing party memberships in both Labour and SNP and, most recently, "Lunchgate", in which the original fundraising dinner was held for the Glasgow Asian business community.

In terms of the SNP, some see this as the rise of a radical Islam and its influence in the party, but it is something more mainstream and pernicious: raising suspicions – no more than that – of politics driven by money and influence. When you combine this with the way elements of the Asian community conduct their politics, deeply driven by doing deals and favours and an unappealing patrician culture, and it all amounts to an unappealing mix.

Conservative leader Annabel Goldie asked in parliament yesterday if Rauf was connected to Scottish Asians for Independence, which held the fundraising dinner selling the lunches, and got no answer from Mr Salmond. If he is, it would prove explosive.

Yet, there is also another set of lessons here. Think of the decade of devolution. Many of the stories that have dominated have been about personality. There were Donald Dewar's senior advisers resigning, Henry McLeish's "Officegate", Jack McConnell admitting to infidelity, Wendy Alexander and her troubles with money and David McLetchie and his taxi receipts. Mr Gray recently even got into bother about borrowing council tents.

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Since the SNP came to power, Mr Salmond has got into trouble over Donald Trump and his "Trumpton on Sea" development that sits in his constituency. Now come these two controversies back to back.

These are the stories a small-scale political community, political class and media find easy to follow. A low level of scandal, gossip and intrigue. As such, they have little resonance with the public beyond contributing to a sense that politicians are all the same. The decaying timbers of the Westminster regime this is not.

There is something parochial, lazy and lacking in imagination about this. The issue of how our politics is distorted by money and influence matters from "Lunchgate" to "Officegate". The best intentioned, most idealistic politicians, faced with needing to raise money, often have their heads turned and end up compromised. While business, Asian or otherwise, wants access and influence.

Yet the media and political attention is always about the superficial, never the deeper questions. Where are the wider public conversations about the challenges facing us as a society? Where are the debates, front pages, TV programmes and phone-ins about the impending cuts in public services, our appalling health, crime and violence records, our stalling state education, and what future we will bequeath our children, laden as they will be with debt?

Some of these fleetingly get attention if they fit the narrow political agenda of parties and media, but they never get serious consideration. This matters, because as the daily chatter crowds out everything else, we never stop and ask, where are we going as a nation, and what kind of values do we want to celebrate and promote? That requires maturity, deliberation and the creation of the kinds of public and semi-public spaces which Scotland just does not have.

There is a strain running through the past two weeks that not only has the SNP been shown to be mortal, it has been shown to be normal. It has, in effect, been revealed as a normal political party, made up of people who lose their moral compasses when pressured, make compromises which blur important distinctions, and identify with power and wealth. I think people are looking for more from their politicians, and for an intuitive understanding of the need to champion "the little guy" and stand up to corporate, monied and vested interests. None of the Westminster mainstream parties pass this test.

The SNP government was always going to change fundamentally the nature of the SNP, Scottish politics and with it Scotland. At the moment, it looks likely that the experience of office has changed the SNP much more than it has altered the wider Scotland.