In the unprincipled goings on of the last administration, led by the Alliance of Independent Councillors, we hoped that a party-led administration would bring a discipline and a set of principles that would be stabilising and restore trust to local government.
The opposite has been the case. Nothing could have been worse than the shenanigans and shambles Argyll has lived through since May 2012. It seems like a full term of a mess, not just one year.
The non-political junior partners in this administration have behaved impeccably throughout its 12 month existence. They have been loyal, fuelled no palace revolutions and refrained from briefing the media.
The party-political senior partner, however, has been an object lesson in indiscipline of the most flamboyant order, with the trouble-making faction, mainly outside the group, busily feeding public frenzy against their own party’s latest leader of the administration. This was most obvious in Cowal, where they found a handy cause to use.
At its unprincipled and macchiavellian worst, the Alliance of Independent Councillors under leader, Dick Walsh, at least provided consistent and internally stable government. Even as they hit the storms of their own making over school closures, internal discipline largely held.
And we knew no one was pulling their strings. The buck stopped with them.
Alliances of independents – and there are many variations of how this sort of independence in local government can be delivered – are now seen to have real merit.
Argyll should never feel it can only choose between the two low-grade models it has recently experienced:
- one an old fashioned stalinist version of central control, no transparency and deals done on the back stairs;
- one an ego driven frenzy of the shrilly party political, laying waste several good folk of their own persuasion in the process – and paying no attention whatsoever to the needs of Argyll.
We have several years to come to steady conclusions before the next local authority elections.
This is not the time for more political experiment. Argyll needs to settle down and the experienced ‘settler’ is the Alliance of Independent Councillors, which will inevitably lead what is to come. This is no bad thing, for the time being.
A very immediate predicament – deadline Monday 13th May – is that faced by the SNP councillors who remain with the coalition administration: They are:
- Mary Jean Devon [Mull]
- Anne Horn [Kintyre and the Islands]
- Roddy McCuish [Oban South and the Isles]
- James Robb [Helensburgh Central]
- John Semple [South Kintyre]
- Richard Trail [Helensburgh and Lomond South]
On their party’s ultimatum, they have to decide by tomorrow whether to ‘stay with the SNP’. This requires them to walk away from any part in local government administration, driven by the local party’s desperate drive to get well away from any responsibility before the 2014 Independence Referendum.
The assumption is that the choice is a binary one:
- ‘stay with the SNP’ and refuse to make any contribution to the good governance of Argyll;
- stay with the desperate current attempt to nail together a coalition between the remaining SNP members the 4 Liberal Democrats and the 3 Conservatives and any seducible independents.
The last option will not now work. The numbers were, by last night, already impossible and with Richard Trail and the unwell Isobel Strong said to be about to ‘stay with the SNP’, the proposal may not even be put to a vote it can only lose.
The third option
There is a third option – and an interesting one.
It is the option of putting first the interests of Argyll, leaving the SNP – continuing to vote personally according to political conscience and preference – and joining Councillor Dick Walsh as part of a new coalition led by his Alliance of Independents.
The Argyll First group and Independent Councillor Iain Angus Macdonald, have the same decision to make and have already withdrawn from the proposed coalition with the Lib Dems and the Conservatives.
Councillor Walsh has seen his group abandoned by the Lib Dems and the Conservatives, his former allies in the previous administration, in a personal rush to grab some goodies when the time was ripe in the vulnerability of current Leader, James Robb.
Why should Dick Walsh not be happy with to collaborate with fellow independents, ex-members of the SNP who at least stayed quietly with the ship, worked to hold stability against external party-based wrecking attempts and tried to govern Argyll?
And Argyll First, whose founding principle – which is shared by Independent Iain Angus Macdonald, was to put the interests of Argyll before everything else, would be likely to see the wisdom of such a coalition.
Of the two SNP resignees, we predict that Michael Breslin will ‘stay with the SNP’ to which he will be welcomed back; and that the genuinely independent minded Fred Hall may consider his options – which, rationally, would include the sort of alliance we suggest.
This initiative would have a chance of bringing together the most effective and the most principled of councillors.
Of the six SNP councillors above:
- James Robb must choose to leave the party which he has worked to make responsible in local government;
- Richard Trail appears to be jumping ship – and by that we do not mean jumping ship from this administration but jumping ship from personal responsibility for his actions;
- Mary Jean Devon, faithful only to Mull and otherwise serially seducible otherwise, may do anything.
Roddy McCuish’s, John Semple’s and Anne Horn’s personal decisions by tomorrow are the most interesting and the most potentially powerful.
Each has acted so far with responsibility to Argyll, to colleagues and to principles.
Each now has the power to make a stand for the sort of politics the Argyll electorate wants to see and which Argyll itself desperately needs – non partisan, hard working, strategic and focused on doing a good job – leaving Argyll better than they found it.
What will it say if they choose to put party first, a party that has shown that it simply cannot deal with the responsibilities of government – and has worked assiduously to get its local councillors out of power.
The SNP is finished in Argyll as a force in local government. Who could find any reason other than blind tribalism to vote for a councillor standing under that banner?
If these councillors – or any number of them – were to choose to leave the party [continuing to vote as they wish in national elections and in the 2014 Independence referendum] and to offer themselves for election as Independents at whatever time in the future, it would be a signal strike for integrity in local politics here. prioritising the interests of Argyll – which they are each elected to serve.
We sympathise with their situation – but actually, it is less of a predicament than it may seem. It’s essentially a stark and a simple decision.
It will be interesting to see what each of the does. They will offer or dash hope.
During the period of settling Argyll – the public, councillors and might-be councillors – need not just to settle for the Alliance, who will lead until the next election.
We all need to think about what we want to see happen after that election.
This is an opportunity for the reinvigoration of local politics, for the reinvention and refocusing of all concerned.
A small cluster of councillors led by the Argyll First group – its own three councillors, Kelly, McAlpine and Philand with Councillors Breslin and Hall [both SNP resignees] and Macdonald [Independent] – have been working up thinking on a new way of delivery local government.
The essence of this is to move to inclusive and consensual local government, based on getting the right person into the right area of responsibility regardless of their political or non-political affiliations.
The focus of the initiative has a great deal to commend it:
• the end of the waste of ability in the current and outmoded adversarial model;
• the sense that every councillor – elected to serve, remember – has an active job to do;
• the creating of unilateral common cause in serving the interests of Argyll.
This is the most exciting development in Scottish politics at any level, local and national.
It is a discussion and a process of refinement of ideas to which the electorate can contribute at will.
For Argyll will energetically promote and serve that process – and we hope to see current councillors of all persuasions contribute to it and engage with the thinking of the public, their electorate, here.