In the midst of the debris of the ill-fated first SNP led administration at Argyll and Bute Council, James Robb, the most recent of its two internally downed leaders, is still standing.
He has tried to hold the ring against external political intervention and a level of personal electoral vested interest that was willing to destroy his party’s credibility in government rather than stand by the collective responsibility for cabinet’ decisions that underpins our democracy.
He says, and the evidence supports him: ‘The decisions I took forward were always those of the Administration. I just accepted it was my job to promote and defend those decisions.’
What has it been like to be caught up in the tornado of abuse that has been orchestrated against him – with headlines screaming ‘Axeman Robb’ and ‘Madman’ – in efforts to use the media to force him to abandon a considered administration decision?
There’s a shrug, then a succinct: ‘The personal abuse has taken a heavy toll on my family and there was jubilation when I could leave.’
What had he expected when he agreed to take on the leadership of the council administration when Councillor Roddy McCuish stepped down?
‘I always saw it as a temporary job as I expected the resignations that happened but could do nothing to stop them. I was blocked from doing a deal with Councillor Walsh’s Independents Group.
‘I didn’t even get business cards printed.
‘It seems that some who wanted democratic accountability couldn’t handle it. Some refused to accept collective responsibility.’
What is his view all of the external interventions that are now on the record as having come from many elements of his party, the SNP:
- the local SNP MSP,
- the SNP ‘Compliance Manager’ - a grim title also known as ‘group whip’, who is not a member of the group nor even a resident of Argyll and is based at party HQ;
- the SNP Constituency Association Convener;
- the national party executive.
‘There is a spectrum of view as to the influence the MSP and local SNP officials should have on SNP Council Group decisions. My view is elected SNP Councillors accepted certain responsibilities and arrangements through a formal agreement with the party but are primarily accountable to ALL the people of Argyll & Bute.
‘The SNP Council group was largely autonomous but was open to hear views from all individual and groups, SNP or otherwise. It was always my position that if anyone else wanted to be Council Leader from within the SNP Group I would stand down. It didn’t require the drama.’
We assume that Councillor Robb’s remark that all SNP Councillors ‘accepted certain responsibilities and arrangements through a formal agreement with the party’ refers to the practice of their being required, before taking office, to sign a copy of the SNP’s Standing Orders for Council Groups.
This is another required ceding of authority we knew nothing about until recently.
Interestingly, these Standing Orders require any SNP councillor who decides to cease representing the party in local government to offer themselves for re-election.
Obviously the party cannot enforce compliance with this requirement once a councillor has resigned from the party. It is, though, effectively a matter of honour in the relationship between an elected councillor and their electorate that they should do so. It also demonstrates a residual fidelity to a party that once served a beneficial purpose to the councillor as a candidate.
What does James Robb see happening now in the formation of another administration, the third in a year?
He says he is not involved at all in the current horsetrading and sees only three stable cores of a new administration.
- The first is the current SNP-Conservative-LibDem-A&B Independents Group-Elaine Robertson coalition. This is what in fact remains in place at this moment, until such time as the SNP to give notice to the Council via Douglas Hendry, that they have withdrawn or resigned from administration.
- The second is for the SNP and ‘Councillor Walsh Independents’.
- The third is an ‘everyone but the SNP’ coalition.
In our own view, the electorate would have reason best to trust the third option, after the experiences of the past year.
Councillor Robb says of these options: ‘With the first being vetoed by a national SNP sub-committee, that leaves the Councillor Walsh Group (8) and the SNP (11) coalition with a working majority. This would also see Councillor Walsh emerge as Leader and the SNP back in office but not in power.
The ‘everyone but the SNP’ coalition will require a resolution to some historic personal grievances but is not impossible. The SNP would be an opposition of 11 in a 36 member council and Councillor Walsh would again be Council Leader.
Mr Robb points out that Argyll First’s opposition to a deal with either Dick Walsh or the Conservatives may lead to their being left on the sidelines; but feels that others may compromise and that Councillor Vivien Dance would be a certainty to join this second coalition option. He sees the Argyll & Bute Independents Group and Elaine Robertson as a welcome addition to any coalition.
How about the finances, the budgetary decisions that were at the heart of the internecine warfare?
‘The policy problem was that having started with a stable democratic coalition that was taking a long term strategic view, insufficient individuals were able to stick to it under short term pressure on unpopular but necessary decisions.
‘The £40m budget deficit won’t go away and the reason for smoothing is that, without it, the council faced £10.7m of cuts in 2016-17. That compares to averaging which gives £5.8m per year.
‘That smoothing effect and the “excess savings” taken this year follows through, so 2014-15 will look very easy to balance. However, even on previous practice of balancing the budget over 3 years, the £10.7m funding shortfall in 2016-17 can no longer be ignored by Councillor Walsh.’
How many of the financial targets set were achieved in this past year?
‘All of them will be – but adjustment will have to be made for the delay in closing Struan Lodge – probably from reserves as a one-off; and perhaps a tweak for Atlantis Leisure, which will probably lead to a cut elsewhere in the communities budget.’
Where does the current position leave the financial planning for the remaining four years of this term?
‘No effect. We had already started working on next year’s budget with service reviews planned over the coming years. Councillors could hide behind the officer recommendations but if someone starts interfering with the independent financial forecast for a short term popular budget – that is really bad news longer term.’
What do you see as the core financial challenges?
‘The reluctance to address the long term trends in funding and demographics.’
The tendency not to address such issues is one of the many systemic failures of local – and national – government as it is currently constituted. This is a matter for concern and for overdue attention to reform.
The public image deliberately painted of James Robb in office has been one of total isolation. This has been far from the case.
It has been, as he anticipated, a tough and short wrestling match in his effort to convince colleagues of the need in local politics for the discipline of informed decision taking and constancy of support for decisions taken by the majority.
But while his party’s behaviour – described to us the other day as ‘challenging an anthropologist’ – defies reason, political intelligence, elected responsibility and even consistency, he has had the support of the large majority of his party group – until the national party blew the whistle and ordered them out.
The fact that they obeyed the whistle is not only a matter every one of them should continue to reflect upon but is the nail in the coffin of party politics in local government. Anything in politics where fidelity to the electorate and the assertion of human values are not the priority, is a dangerous distortion.