The SNP proposal which was accepted on Thursday 27th June in preference to proposals in the motion from Argyll and Bute for Change, creates a position where:
- the council has no legal impediment to performing its statutory functions, come what may, until new political management arrangements and structures have been accepted and are in place;
- an all-inclusive cross-chamber 12-strong Short Life Working Party will be quickly established to create a proposal for such arrangements and structures to be brought to the council meeting in August for support;
- that Short Life Working Group will, by its nature, be a properly constituted committee of council and will speak with executive authority to council officers.
The council is now in recess for the month of July. The time to its August meeting is a realistic period for a sound proposal to emerge, be interrogated robustly and refined in time to come to the council in a developed state.
This sort of work is not quick if it is to be good enough. It will take two months of sustained hard work from the group to get it done and to get it right.
Key issues are:
- that anyone who refuses to participate will be seen not to put the interests of Argyll first;
- that every individual member of this group understands that they are tasked with working collaboratively to bring inclusive, sustainable and improved procedures for stable governance to Argyll and Bute;
- that there is no built-in advantage to any faction in the group or in its remit;
- that there is no pre-supposition as to what the group’s eventual proposal will be.
Attempts by anyone to maintain factional interests in the proceedings of the group and attempts to obstruct its reaching of constructive conclusions, should they occur, will be punished by the electorate when the occasion arises.
The Argyll and Bute electorate is heartily sick of internal party civil wars fostered for party interest within the SNP group of councillors; and of backbiting factionalism between groups in the council.
They want to see Argyll put first, way ahead of everything else and particularly so after the extent to which this area and this council have been made a national snigger yet again in the convolutions of the past year.
The incompetence factor
The level of incompetence of the Argyll and Bute for Change motion was a genuine shock – and a disappointment. Earlier in this saga of destructive external political intervention in the work of elected members working to provide forward-looking governance here, For Argyll suggested that there was little alternative to a return to the known competence of the previous governing group.
On Thursday last, it was clear that this competence has clearly left the building. Time takes its irresistible toll.
The Argyll and Bute for Change group includes long-time former Council Leader, Councilor Dick Walsh and is led by the experienced councillor, Duncan Macintyre. Yet the motion the group put forward was deficient on critical and basic issues to which both men should unequivocally have been wise and alert. It could not possibly have been accepted as it stood; and it had not been tested, rethought or revised since it was lodged a week before the meeting. That too is unacceptably complacent and it did for their motion.
That motion failed because it was insupportable – although 14 councilors nevertheless supported it, willy nilly. We will never get good governance for Argyll as long as councillors continue to lack the ability and the will to act with intelligent objectivity.
The greatest argument for a unitary council is that it would let councillors learn how to vote on the evidence on an issue rather than voting for their ‘side’ regardless of right, wrong or the effort required to understand and evaluate evidence.
Not only was the Argyll and Bute for Change motion on Thursday an unable one, it was poorly handled in the chamber.
Supporting statements relied more on the denigration of opposing councillors and groups than on the motion itself and, in one instance, also on an embarrassingly sub-evangelical call to stand together. The flag of inclusivity flown in this peroration was quite absent from the motion and its proposals, in whose favour this call to arms was launched.
When the motion was shown to be unable, its supporters tried to revise it on the hoof, during the meeting and away from its own text – offering to add this and that and even to adopt the current Council Leader, Roddy McCuish.
Then Argyll and Bute for Change asked for an adjournment to give them time to fix it up. It was a more shambolic performance than anyone would have imagined possible. They had had a week to ‘fix’ the motion prior to the meeting, and had not seen the need to do so. The Depute Provost, after some havering, called for a vote on an adjournment by a show of hands. It was defeated.
Lack of integrity
A numbing moment was Councillor Michael Breslin’s vote. The second called to state his intentions, he hesitated for so long before registering his vote that no one was sure he had heard his name called. Then he cleared his throat, paused again – and voted FOR this motion, which he must have recognised was incompetent and insupportable.
This was politics at work, not a care for good governance. This was also the expiring breath of Councillor Breslin’s credibility – a progressive loss marked by serious failures of judgment in his dealings with colleagues – another disappointment to advance expectations of much greater ability than has proved to be the case.
Then there is Councillor Robert G Macintyre from Lomond, who has been in and out of groups on all sides of this mess – and back again - with the elasticity of the bungee jumper he appears to be. There has been no sense of any criteria governing his actions other than weakness and opportunism. He has established himself as someone no one can rely upon – and is no more than the makeweight useful for the time being to the major players. He is not alone in that but he has been the most frequent fence-hopper.
Playing both ends against the middle
Two SNP councillors – Councillors Gordon Blair and Robert E Macintyre, have become active members of the Argyll and Bute for Change group which opposes their own party group , of which they also remain members. This surreal situation sees the pair attend SNP group meetings at which group strategy is discussed – and also play their part in developing strategy in the opposing group to which they appear more centrally committed.
At Thursday’s meeting, these two councillors both registered a ‘No vote’ – meaning that they supported neither the motion proposed by the party whose cause they are actively supporting, Argyll and Bute for Change – nor the amendment proposed by the SNP party group to which they still belong and in which they are effectively acting as informants for an opposition group.
In recording a ‘No vote’, were these two councillors:
- finding core elements of a motion they had supported until that moment to be suddenly inadequate ?
- failing to offer support to a motion from a party to whom they have committed?
- actually supporting the SNP group upon which their departures and shilly-shallyings have been wholly destructive?
- taking care not to vote against an SNP amendment in case that lost them their party membership?
Whatever their motivation, this pair have been loyal to no one and nothing – except to whoever is controlling their moves. They have made fools of themselves – and there are many who would argue with some force that they did not have any great distance to travel to do that.
Their ‘No vote’ manoeuvre ensured that Argyll and Bute for Change could not get its motion through; yet it was clear from audible mutterings and overt remarks in the chamber from one of them at least, that they are unpleasantly opposed to their party group.
Current SNP Group Leader, Sandy Taylor, if he were indeed a leader, would have every reason to ask the pair where their principal loyalties lie and to exclude them from SNP group meetings, should their strategic allegiance lie elsewhere for the time being.
Abandonment of principle
Another genuine shock on Thursday was the position taken by the Argyll First group, who have now simply thrown away their own hard earned credibility.
Argyll First laid its foundation on focusing on the interests of Argyll and Bute above those of their members’ own constituencies. The corner stone of this position was its consistent opposition to the Executive Committee introduced by Council Leader Dick Walsh in his last term of office.
The Argyll First argument was that this Executive created two classes of councillor – those in and those outwith the Executive, making a vote for one councillor a pointless affair while a vote for another enabled some political clout.
That argument was progressively accepted, largely on the basis of the membership and performance of the former Executive, rather than on any understanding of management practices.
When the SNP emerged as the largest group after the May 2012 council elections and formed a governing coalition which included Argyll First, one of the first actions taken was to remove the Executive Committee from the structures of political management of the council.
However, on Thursday, Argyll First, which has chosen now to align itself with Argyll and Bute for Change, unquestioningly voted to support a motion that would have installed an utterly unrepresentative and exclusive group of nine, seven of whom were named and from the group they have themselves joined – to develop proposals for the future operation of the political management of the council.
Argyll First voted to support an utterly undemocratically constituted group being licensed to shape the future of a split and troubled council, each of whose members we elected to serve Argyll.
For this particular group to have lost its directional compass is not only disappointing but is one of the most significant costs of the political whiteouts of the past few months.
Lessons and positives
After Thursday’s meeting, it was clear that politics in Argyll really has to grow up and stop the damaging tribal branding of some councillors as toxic just because they are Tories or Liberal Democrats.
Argyll and Bute does not have a sufficient ratio of competent councillors to be able to afford to waste talent so foolishly. Its capability quotient seems even more fragile after this meeting, with the competence of older and experienced councillors shown to be markedly on the wane.
The most competent contributions to the debate came from members of the Argyll, Lomond and the Isles group, from members of the former Liberal Democrat and Conservative groups.
- Councillor Ellen Morton left the Argyll and Bute for Change motion in tatters after a series of forensic Points of Order, stripping it bare, revealing its essential inability and the exclusivity which characterised its development and its proposal.
- Councillor Gary Mulvaney made a statesmanlike contribution paying tribute to the proposers of the motion for opening the door to a collective discussion of the change universally agreed to be necessary and pointing to the procedural security and inclusiveness of the amendment. He also usefully asked for interim feedback from Audit Scotland to help to focus the Short Life Working Group’s deliberations.
- Councillors Robin Currie pointed out that community fund raising events over the peak of the summer season would be unable to get occasional licenses to sell alcohol with the motion’s proposal to remove forthwith the Chair of the Planning, Protective Services and Licensing Committee along with all other senior responsibilities.
- Councillor Aileen Morton underlined the ridiculousness of a well-intended offer of the Depute Provost by thanking him for it and by worrying aloud about the stress of so substantial an undertaking. The motion had proposed to leave in place only the Provost and Depute Provost; so the Depute Provost had offered to save the disabling impact of the motion by standing in for the entire spectrum of senior councillor responsibilities until the August meeting.
Another Conservative Councillor, Maurice Corry, who did not speak in this debate but who, as ‘Armed Forces Champion’, gave an admirably succinct and authoritative summary on this matter at the start of the meeting, is clearly another genuine ability.
The council cannot afford to discard these abilities from developmental responsibilities for no reason than that their personal voting preferences are currently unpopular – and particularly so amongst rival political parties.
The comic turns
There were some funny – well, mad – moments on Thursday that are worth sharing.
- Councillor Duncan Macintyre, in his supporting statement for the motion, spoke of ‘soul searching’, to the quiet exchange of ironic grins between some councillors and between members of the audience.
- Councillor Vivien Dance outed herself as someone no-one invites to parties – saying that no group had invited her to join them until she was sort of approached to join Argyll and Bute for Change.
- The stand out punk act was Councillor Fred Hall, who turned in an astonishing – not to say alarming – performance which Johnny Rotten might have envied these days. He began by asking what premises were appropriate to political group meetings and citing a recent one he understood to have been held in a pub in Dunoon. He then, single-handedly, proposed to revise the Argyll and Bute for Change motion in mid stream. From there he launched into dismissive abuse of fellow councillors that he was forced to retract. At this point he simply started raising his voice progressively above all others until he was shouting at full force that they should all stand down and offer themselves for re-election. Councillor Dick Walsh pointed out, against the background of continuing yelling, that most councillors’ affiliations remain as they were when they offered themselves for election in May 2012, so they have no need to stand down. His point was that some councillors, [like Mr Hall] had stood for a party from which they had since resigned, making the validity if their own tenure rather different.