What happened to lose the SNP so golden an opportunity in Argyll, their first ever leading role in local political management?
- lack of faith in its local representatives,
- lack of familiarity with team building or teamwork,
- in fear of anything locally controversial that could be laid at the party’s door that might prejudice the independence vote in 2012,
- lack of political courage
- and lack of political nous,
the SNP party hierarchy – assisted by some SNP Group members – proceeded, wholly avoidably, to carve a sow’s ear from a potential silk purse.
The coalition of the new that took office in May 2012, led by the SNP Group of councillors and with Group Leader Councillor Roddy McCuish as its first Council Leader, wasted no time in fulfilling one of its election promises.
It abolished the Executive Committee – the Cabinet, if you like. This had been set up by its predecessor and had been the consistent focus of objection from the Argyll First Group. Their argument was that it was anti-democratic and created two classes of councillor – one whose voice counted and one whose voice did not.
Dumping this committee at once was a concession to coalition partner, Argyll First – but the evidence of collective inexperience lay in forgetting that there had been a reason for its existence – business management. The failure to replace this committee with any alternative mechanism meant a progressive return to day-long council meetings, with inconsistently prepared councillors ploughing their way through agendas to daunt the fearless.
This sort of meeting never was any way to take decisions. It smartly underlines the downside of democracy.
The newbies also replaced the title of ‘Spokesperson’ for the holders of the senior portfolios – a title which always did sound like the ventriloquist’s dummy operated by senior officers that too many such ‘Spokespersons’ have always been.
The positions were freshly entitled ‘Lead Councillor’ – a genuine improvement which at once suggested responsibility and collaboration.
Between the golden dawn and the political apocalypse, the SNP Group lost its way and also lost sight of the deployment of coalition resources.
Councillor Dougie Philand of Argyll First had been appointed at the outset as a safe source to consult for council staff troubled by the culture of fear at Kilmory. This was a widely welcomed innovation – by staff and by the public.
It was a clear move for a change to a more enlightened working ethos and Councillor Philand was eminently the right man for the job.
That appointment appeared to go missing at some point – for no defensible reason; another opportunity for worthwhile change lost in the chaos.
An unlucky administration
From the start, this was an unlucky political management.
They had barely sorted out who was doing what when the curse of the school dinners blogger struck again.
Young Martha Payne was still taking photographs of her school dinners – and was ordered by her head teacher to desist.
There was some foundation for this. The dinner ladies, who had become the innocent focus for public criticism, were increasingly distressed at the perpetual sight of a lens directed at a dinner plate containing the best they could do on the budget they had.
But Martha went viral for a second time, now as a suppressed campaigner for decent food for children.
This was never going to be a contest. Men in suits with stern faces and tight pockets on the one hand; fresh faced hungry youth on the other? The national media were all over the place, asking questions at Kilmory HQ; and even reading statements on the low-tide shore at Lochgilphead – never ask why.
Council Leader Roddy McCuish appeared outside Kilmory, reading a dehumanised statement that could never have originated from him and was imprinted with all of the known stylistic fingerprints of a particular council officer.
Bad. This was a first round wipeout to the kid with the camera.
Round Two was the BBC Scotland reporter on the lochshore reading a press release issued by ‘the council’ – a fully stalinist affair, this time with the very familiar style of a particular Executive Director. It had allegedly been issued without reference to councillors.
These two statements, coming in quick succession, did serious reputational damage to a brand new administration that was indeed fresh minded but looked like nothing less than a rewind of the last one. And the officers were in the driving seat.
The first summer came and went and things went quiet, with everyone giving the new council latitude to settle in without particularly heavy scrutiny.
Behind the scenes, the SNP Group had become aware that the party wanted them out of power, for the reasons given above.
By Christmas, Council Leader McCuish had had enough of the pressurising, the interventions and the internal manoeuverings. He had become unwell and he wanted out.
The honeymoon period hit the rocks in January with a still reverberating issue which highlights the double standards of the public themselves.
The Struan Lodge catalyst
The Struan Lodge affair was the catalyst for the state in which the SNP finds itself today in Argyll.
In looking at the causes for the falling apart of the SNP in Argyll and Bute, this article is not going to rehash the events we are all too familiar with but to try to peel them back and see what lay behind them.
The factors at play in the flame-thrower that the proposal to close the Council-run Struan Lodge Care Home in Dunoon became, were:
- double standards in what the public expect of their politicians
- justificatory costs per resident emerging from the council which were later corrected downwards
- lack of political courage in the party
- alpha male personality conflicts within the circle of the SNP Group and its external party influencers
- an administration that had not had time or focus to prepare to work as a team.
People hope that councillors will be honest and straight-dealing – except that where people’s own interests are concerned they are likely to tolerate, if not ask for, some latitude – a bit of a fix.
This contradictory concept of flexible integrity helps no one and had a key part to play in this drama.
Struan Lodge had very few residents [between 8 and 11], so whatever the reasons for that occupancy were [and this did not happen on the new administration's watch], the costs per head [whatever they really were], cannot have been particularly efficient.
There was plenty of spare capacity in non-council owned care homes in Cowal, many times what would have been needed in any relocation of residents at Struan Lodge.
But we’re not talking about stock control here. We’re talking about human beings – and the most vulnerable ones, with families dreading any additional distress and dislocation for them.
Enter the concept of flexible integrity – aggravated by the conflicted and inflexible position taking, itself fuelled by the alpha male confrontations which left no room for reasoned negotiation or for people to shift ground.
This is the classic pattern of an ill-managed potential conflict hardening into outright mutual destruction in the banishing of reason.
Dunoon was scandalised less by the prospect of losing Struan Lodge than by being unable to exert political leverage on the decision. The Lead Councillor on Finance came from the far end of the Clyde and was immune to local pressure. This was an alien experience for Dunoon and the result was a girding up for war of a community intent on protecting its sense of entitlement.
Under the firestorm of the Dunoon response to the proposed closure of the care home, with local councillors and other party figures feeling that their personal political careers were at risk – inflammatory populism led the charge.
The matter developed into an overt internecine war, characterised by politically fuelled demonisations and the sort of threats no one with any spine would accept.
The heart of the matter
The lesson to be learned here is for the public as much as for the SNP Group and its governing party.
There can be no question but that we must see evidence-based objective judgment in the work and proposals coming from our politicians at any level.
This means that we must all accept that in the interests of the greater common good there will be decisions that will fall against our personal or communal interests – and that, where the argument is sound in spirit, we ought responsibly to accept it.
This incident took place in the context of the Scottish Government having to demand substantial public sector spending cuts in the aftermath of the 2008 collapse of the financial sector.
In the case of Struan Lodge, the argument was that scarce financial resources ought to be deployed to support the greatest good for the greatest number. That has always seemed an unanswerable position but it never got a look in.
If we persist in self-interest above all and in our tolerance of the politics of the pork barrell, we are into bare knuckle territory, with the reasonable perpetually prey to the street fighters. Where is the civility in that; and where is the foundation for the imperative of trust in political judgment?
If we change, our politicians will have to change to meet us. Change for the better ultimately rests with us.
Yes, the SNP Group failed Argyll here. At heart, they failed us by perpetuating the politics of the past and by lacking the political courage to lay out a straightforward resource allocation narrative and to work together in shared responsibility to convince those immediately affected by it of its essential rightness. Instead of this, they ate each other in a fashion escaped mink wold envy.
Had the personality conflicts not inflamed the situation, there were obvious shifts in position which would not have involved fundamental budgetary compromise but would have offered achievable security of residence to the remaining occupants of Struan Lodge. They were always the ones who mattered in this – not Dunoon, not hypothetical future residents, not individual egos and not political careers.