Euan McColm: Above board and below the moral high ground

A promotion for the stepson of the SNP's leader in Westminster is symptomatic of why the party has lost its mojo, writes Euan McColm

Blackford speaks during PMQs in the House of Commons. Picture: PA

At the heart of the SNP’s message for as long as I can remember has been the assertion that the party is morally superior to others.

Nationalist politicians rose to prominence in Scotland while condemning the behaviour of opponents. Labour and Conservative MPs were characterised as gravy train-jumping freeloaders who cared nothing for the many plights of their constituents; SNP MPs, on the other hand, would place Scotland and its people first.

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Among the battalion of Scottish Labour MPs defenestrated by the SNP in the 2015 general election were a number who deserved much of the criticism levelled at them. Years of Labour dominance in Scotland had helped foster a sense of entitlement. While MPs coined it in, abusing an expenses system that allowed clearly unjustifiable claims, they would ensure those closest to them were well looked after by handing out taxpayer-funded jobs to relatives.

It was almost unseemly, so when the SNP focused its political attacks on the excesses of opponents, it was hardly surprising when it began inflicting some real damage.

But the problem with holding other people to high standards is that, in order to avoid the charge of hypocrisy, one must also live up to them.

The defeat of Angus Robertson in last month’s general election means the SNP has a new Westminster leader. Ian Blackford, who unseated the late Charles Kennedy two years ago to become MP for Ross, Skye and Lochaber. It is a measure of how poor the calibre of SNP MPs now is that Blackford was able to secure this position.

The SNP’s Westminster leader’s success is the result of Robertson’s defeat rather than his own political skills.

Still, even if he’s a second-rater in the debating chamber, at least he’s one of those new politicians who reject cronyism and spurn the advances of the rich and powerful in favour of standing with the many and all that noble sort of stuff.

Actually… perhaps Blackford isn’t quite so different from the sort of politicians the SNP enjoys denouncing. During the recent election campaign, he benefited from a £3,000 donation from multimillionaire hedge-fund manager, David Craigen, who has, in the past, donated large sums to the Conservative Party. Furthermore, Blackford received an identical sum from Craigen before the 2015 election.

And if the beneficial relationship with a city high-flier doesn’t quite do it for you, how about the fact that Blackford recently promoted his stepson, John O’Leary, from being simply his caseworker to being his senior caseworker. This promotion – which took place just before a ban on MPs employing relatives in new posts came into effect – entitles O’Leary to a taxpayer-funded salary of just north of 35 grand.

Blackford has, of course, done absolutely nothing wrong in either of these cases. Campaigning politicians are perfectly entitled to accept donations and who that money comes from is – some legal restrictions aside – a matter for the politician in question. If Blackford, the Westminster leader of a party standing up for “progressive” values wishes to accept £6,000 from a hedge-fund manager then that is up to him.

Likewise, if the Westminster leader of a party that has spent much of its existence attacking the cronyism displayed by its opponents wished to employ his stepson in a key role within his constituency office, he was – at the time the appointment was made – entirely free to do so. Doubtless, O’Leary was the very best candidate for the job.

Over the years, the SNP has played its part in creating a political culture where perception is all. It doesn’t matter whether no rules have been bent, whether no laws have been broken, it matters how things look.

Even the most enthusiastic SNP supporter would surely accept that Blackford’s actions look awfully like the sort they enjoy denouncing when opponents are involved.

The SNP’s rise was accelerated by a rapidly growing public disillusionment with established – or establishment, if you go for that sort of thing – parties and the way they did things. If the SNP won the 2007 Holyrood election because Labour lost voters to the idea it had lost touch with them, the nationalists grew support through the crises and scandals that followed. From the financial crash to the Westminster expenses scandal, here was the evidence that politics needed a new force to sweep away the crooks and wastrels who’d cluttered up the House of Commons.

Remarkably, the SNP managed to sustain this idea that its politicians (selfless, hard-working) were fundamentally different from others (grasping, lazy) for a long time. But perceptions change.

A backlash against the SNP which began with the loss of its Holyrood majority last year and gathered pace with the loss of 21 of its 56 MPs last month suggests that the notion of the nationalists as uniquely straight-dealing is far less widely held than it was.

SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon is now presiding over a party in decline. A serious miscalculation on the referendum issue – insisting on having another crack despite massive public opposition to the idea – cost the party barrowloads of votes in the general election. Her party, which once appeared so dynamic, looks weak and uncertain when it comes not only to the constitution but to the domestic agenda.

I am not at all certain how Blackford helps the SNP rebuild its reputation as an outsider party, on your side against an uncaring establishment.

The SNP, of course, has always held opponents to standards nobody could be expected to meet. The nationalists happily exaggerated the “misdeeds” of others while sticking yet more Saltires into the soft earth of the moral high ground.

The truth is that SNP politicians are no different to any other kind. Ian Blackford reminds us that, for all its claims of moral superiority, the SNP are – as your mate in the pub likes to say – the bloody same as all the rest.