On Radio Clyde News at 11.00am yesterday morning, 8th June, First Minister Alex Salmond said that ‘grown up politics is about working with opponents’.
Correct as this is, it indicates that the First Minister is asleep at the wheel. Mr Salmond can have no idea that, at the highest level within his own party, working with opponents has been expressly forbidden, with mass suspensions and overt threats of loss of party membership to support it.
An authoritative source in Edinburgh has, since the First Minister’s radio statement, confirmed to us that the decision to order SNP councillors in Argyll and Bute not to collaborate with Liberal Democrats and Conservatives was taken by a high level sub-group of the party’s National Executive Committee: Cabinet Secretary for Finance, John Swinney MSP; Communities Minister Derek Mackay MSP; and local MSP Michael Russell MSP.
This decision was taken on the basis of advice from Mr Russell to the other two – who have no personal knowledge of the area and who rely on ‘the local man’ to inform them of opinions on the ground.
Mr Swinney and Mr Mackay were apparently advised that local SNP branch activists would not tolerate such collaboration and that their members would leave the party.
This advice given to Mr Swinney and Mr Mackay appears to have been the foundation for what is a wholly inconsistent ruling for Argyll and Bute, since, as we have shown, the SNP is in coalition with both Liberal Democrats and Conservatives in other councils across Scotland.
The advice is given the lie by the fact that, as we recently reported, five of the eight SNP branches – Oban, Mull, Helensburgh, Campbeltown and Dalriada – are offering support to their councillors to work with whoever they feel will assist them in producing the best governance for Argyll and Bute.
These five branches embrace three of the four administrative areas in Argyll and Bute, leaving only the three branches in Cowal and Bute, the fourth administrative area and the one where Mr Russell lives and holds sway.
The Cowal branches of Strachur, Bute & Cowal and Holy Loch continue alone to oppose SNP councillors wishing to work collaboratively with councillors in the Argyll, Lomond and the Isles group. Some but not all councillors in this group may personally vote Lib Dem or Conservative but do not now organise in party-affiliated groups.
The local MSP and those influenced by him in Cowal and Bute have been working to get the SNP group out of office and into the calm waters of opposition. There, all they would have to do would be to criticise others rather than take responsibility for the government they sought at the last council election.
The objective is, at all costs, to protect the vote for independence in September 2014 from any adverse public reaction to necessary but unpopular decisions.
Many party activists now realise that this top-down driven strategy will make the party unelectable in Argyll and Bute next time around. Such awareness is fuelling the support for the nine out of eleven SNP councillors who wish to deliver responsible local government. The spread of this support has alarmed the Obergrupenfuhrers.
The result of this alarm is an extraordinary edict issued by the SNP Constituency Association Convener and the local MSP: that, without them being present, branch chairs may not meet.
This alone should make it clear to Mr Swinney and Mr Mackay exactly where the source of discord and opposition is coming from to the collaborative working the First Minister is on the record as wishing to see.
Mr Russell has previously denied having anything whatsoever to do with the specific forbidding of Argyll and Bute SNP councillors to collaborate with Liberal Democrats and Conservatives.
Only Mr Russell’s two colleagues in this daft proscription will know the extent to which they have been misinformed of the situation that has led to the meltdown of coherence in the party group in Argyll and Bute Council – and of Mr Russell’s own very active role in orchestrating the bitter internal divisions.
When Councillor James Robb was elected Council Leader in January 2013, Mr Russell, who is known to have a profound antipathy to Mr Robb, set out to undermine him and to inflame the public against the collective decisions of the administration Councillor Robb led.
The poisonousness of Mr Russell’s attitude to Councillor Robb was shown at the SNP Constituency Meeting last Sunday, 2nd June, when the MSP proposed a motion of no confidence in Mr Robb – who is now simply an SNP councillor for Helensburg Central – and who has had unwavering support from his constituents.
The motion was resoundingly defeated in a vote.
When we were first told of this incident we discounted it because we could see no reason why the MSP would continue to pursue a colleague whom he had already made sure was unhorsed as Council Leader. We have, however, had the incident confirmed to us, with the explanation that the rules allow for members to put motions of no confidence in individual councillors as well as in leaders.
The personal viciousness in this situation is not only distasteful but has been the driver of an extraordinarily prolonged period of self destruction within the SNP group at the council.
The majority of the group are currently doing all they can to hold things together and to build constructive collaborative working relationships – for the good of Argyll – under the naturally inclusive Councillor Roddy McCuish who, is again the elected Council Leader.
The party hierarchy should also be alerted to the reality of the situation here by the fact that this group of councillors includes all three who have led the group or SNP coalition administrations within the last year.