Sturgeon intervenes in aid of benefit cheat; First Minister lobbies for illegal immigrant on drug charges; SNP leadership in cash-for-access row over sale of parliamentary lunches… You could be forgiven for thinking that the SNP administration had taken leave of its senses recently, or belatedly started playing catch up with Labour and the Tories over sleaze.
It’s given the Scottish press a new angle on the SNP administration, which has been boringly competent for nigh on three years now. Brings to mind one of those cod ‘apologies’ in Private Eye: “Readers of the Scottish press may have been under the impression that Super Salmond and his team of political visionaries were transforming Scotland through a virtuoso display of modern minority governance and sheer hard work. We now accept that there is not a jot or tittle of truth in this. In reality, Fat Eck and his sleazy crew of misguided misfits have turned Scottish democracy into a disgrace from which it will never recover. We apologise for any misunderstanding.”
So what exactly is going on? Is it all got up by the press as the legion of cybernats believe? Has the SNP been infected with mad party disease? Is it all over for nationalism? Well, first of all this is about the curiously intense relations politicians choose to have with their constituents, especially those from an ethnic background. I’ve often been surprised by the lengths MPs and MSPs will go to help them. As the SNP rightly pointed out last week, Gordon Brown himself has been known to give character references to people on drugs charges, just because they happen to live in his constituency. Alex Salmond got into some presentational difficulties lobbying the home office on behalf of a Chinese asylum seeker, also facing drugs charges. Why do they bother? Well, partly it’s about votes. Supporting a member of an ethnic minority in a seat like Govan, where the Asian vote is crucial, can’t do any harm at election time. But I don’t think that was Nicola Sturgeon’s prime motivation.
These days MSPs are desperate to show that they can actually do things for people. They hope that helping constituents in a jam will generate goodwill as the tale gets circulated round Somerfield and Tescos. No – I can’t really explain why Nicola Sturgeon didn’t see why helping this particular individual, guilty of defrauding £80,000, would go down badly in these establishments. There is nothing that angers people more than benefit cheats. I can accept that she genuinely felt that Abdul Rauf had shown remorse and started to pay back the money and that incarceration might endanger his health. But many Govan constituents will say he should have thought of that before he did the crime.. Alex Salmond insisted at First Minister’s Question Time last week that it was an MSP’s “bounden duty” to support a constituent “without fear or favour”. But that doesn’t mean supporting them right or wrong.
Of course, Nicola Sturgeon herself did nothing wrong, as far as we know. There was no ministerial impropriety, no money involved and no cover up. But these issues are all about perception, about judgement. There was an echo of the al Megrahi affair, when the SNP justice Minister, Kenny MacAskill suffered collateral damage from his dogged decision to follow “due process” and release the Lockerbie bomber to die at home in Libya. MacAskill similarly argued that he had done the right thing – while others said that giving special treatment to convicted mass murderers sent out the wrong message.
Actually, I think these latest scandalettes have more to do with independence than constituency politics or the law. How so? Well, because this latter half of the first ever nationalist term of office was supposed to be about one thing and one thing only: securing that referendum on independence. The bill should have been presented by now, allowing Scottish voters the opportunity to demonstrate their enthusiasm for leaving the UK. Nothing was supposed to get in the way, which is why there’s nothing really hot on the legislative agenda right now, nor any innovative policies emerging from Bute House.
Cynics might say that the SNP were anyway running out of ideas and running out of puff. A lot of manifesto promises have had to be ditched – local income tax, class sizes, the futures trust. But in Alex Salmond’s plan, 2010 was always marked out as the year for “raising Scotland’s game”. Unfortunately, the Scots don’t seem to want to play at the moment. I’m not saying that independence is a dead duck, but it’s not looking too healthy right now. Support for independence in most tests of opinion remains well below 30%, while the SNP itself is losing ground to Labour in voting intentions, both for Holyrood and for Westminster. Partly this is an inevitable backwash from the economic crisis – people simply have other things on their minds right now, like their jobs, houses. There’s some truth in the claim by Jim Murphy, the Labour Scottish Secretary, that the banking crisis made voters look to the security of the UK. But whatever the cause, the urgency seems to have gone from the whole constitutional issue. This doesn’t mean it’s all over for nationalism, but what it does mean is that the SNP is stuck on the stage without any music to play – or anything the voters want to hear. The government has begun to drift, and when governments drift, thing go wrong. Ministers lose concentration and become accident prone.
They should console themselves that Alex Salmond’s approval ratings are still high. Labour’s performance in Holyrood has been dismal until the row over Nicola and the benefit cheat presented Iain Gray with an open goal last week. After an inordinately long honeymoon normal political service is is jut reasserting itself. Never having been in government before, the SNP is unused to this experience and is in danger of overreacting to it. Governments must get used to being disliked and stay calm when things go wrong. They could still come out strengthened. This is a test of the moral fibre of the nationalist movement. They must learn the most important quality in government is an ability to keep the heid.