Politics really are stranger than fiction.
The SNP group of councillors are meeting on Monday 27th October to consider going into coalition with the current administration at Argyll and Bute Council – under Council Leader Dick Walsh.
Informed sources have it that the group is minded to do this, possibly less than unanimously but by a majority.
This would be the last of the four 90 degree turns required to bring the SNP council group back to where it was on the morning of 25th November 2010, hours before its members, not necessarily willingly, resigned as junior partners in the then coalition led by Council Leader Walsh and the Alliance of Independent Councillors.
This was the administration leadership intent on inflicting a scorched earth policy on rural primary schools in Argyll, a policy which the SNP group had obediently supported until the mood of the people changed the minds of their political masters – alarmed at the potential impact of this scouring on the party’s prospects in Argyll and Bute in the May 2011 Scottish Elections. So the SNP councillors walked.
That was the first turn. The second was being voted into power in May 2012 by the Argyll and Bute electorate, as the largest council group, entrusted to see the end of the serially discredited Walsh regime. The third turn was the implosion of the SNP group in power, forced into self-destruction and out of power by its own party, to protect the independence vote [since lost on 18th September 2014] – and replaced by Walsh. The coalition under consideration would be the last turn in a complete revolution – back to Walsh – that will write its own place in the black book of Scottish local politics.
What sort of coalition?
There are three core questions involved in this.
The first two relate to what sort of invitation to coalition is the one said to have been issued now to the SNP Group by Council Leader Dick Walsh.
If accepted, would it herald yet another Lobster Quadrille at Kilmory, with Dick Walsh dancing away with the SNP in his arms and leaving some of his current coalition partners as the wallflowers on the side?
Of might he have invited them to join his existing coalition, seeing Argyll and Bute become a unitary council and making him look good in the eyes of Audit Scotland – a body which is a self-excusatory version of the three wise monkeys, with all hands clapped to the eyes of all commissioners.
An allied question is whether this move has been initiated by invitation at all or by an insider prompt for the group to commence political rehabilitation in Argyll and Bute by offering to join the current administration and creating a unitary council. of supposed harmony.
Such a prompt could credibly have come from the local SNP MSP, concerned about the prospects for the SNP vote in Argyll and Bute in the Scottish Elections in May 2016.
We do know that some key members of Mr Walsh’s current coalition administration had not been aware that the SNP are considering being part of a coalition led by him.
This phenomenon, however, cannot strongly support either possible prompt for the SNP’s deliberations this coming Monday – because it could equally support either the conspiracy theory with the nimble Mr Walsh choosing an ‘excuse me’ waltz; or a rehabilitation move for the SNP council group.
How would the unitary council scenario work out?
The first obstacle to this one is that during the SNP’s year of self-cannibalisation to get out of power, one of the SNP’s decapitated Council Leaders, Councillor McCuish, had tried to institute a unitary council and had been forbidden to do so by the SNP’s National Executive Committee [NEC] under pain of political excommunication.
Evidently the greatest possible SNP taboo was to work with Conservatives and Liberal Democrats – even though other SNP councils across Scotland were in such relationships with no complaint or intervention from party HQ. There was a different rule for Argyll – because the aim was to get the SNP group out of power by hook or by crook – and there were plenty of both.
This means that a licensed all-in-together stunt today, when SNP political imperatives are different, would pick the scabs off recent sores.
The concept of a unitary council is also one of willed harmony, with all participants heading in the same direction. though they may disagree from time to time on the best means of getting there.
If the SNP are considering offering to make it a unitary council by accepting the overlordship of Council Leader Walsh, they will have an electorate to persuade of their integrity, since they had been elected in 2014 to provide a viable alternative to the Walsh regime – and had crawled away crippled by ‘friendly fire’.
Moreover, if they are to offer this gesture, they will be doing so for reasons of their own local political rehabilitation – and that itself is no more than a positioning to try for power again. They would therefor not be trustworthy bedfellows. In fact, such a unitary council could only be a sackful of ferrets biting for advantage.
Then there are three side issues to the SNP enabling a unitary council by joining the current coalition.
What about the quids pro quo in return for their joining? Who, in the current administration hierarchy, would be asked to take a fall in favour of an SNP group inheritor? How would that play?
Then there is the question of where such a unitary council would leave Councillors Michael Breslin and Bruce Marshall?
Mr Breslin is a former SNP councillor now without party membership, following a botched strategic resignation as part of the hilarious non-power struggle. He is also outside the present coalition, having recently been sacked from it by Mr Walsh for – rightly – refusing to sign an improper gagging clause .
Mr Marshall, a long time members of Councillor Walsh;s Alliance of Independent Councillors, walked out of the current Walsh administration in support of Councillor Breslin’s position.
The circumstances of Councillor Breslin’s expulsion, along with other factors, are such that it is hard to imagine him choosing to work again with – never mind under – Council Leader Walsh. And Councillor Marshall is likely to keep him company.
Would this proposed SNP move see a council with an administration of all comers except two – or possibly three [what wold Labour;s one councilor, the newly elected Neil MacIntyre, do?] – and would two or three become a formal opposition – or what?
The third question is whether the party would seek to reunite the SNP council group under what could be the convenient shelter of a unitary council?
- This would resolve the rule-breaking anomaly of Councillor Gordon Blair’s position. He is currently a member of Argyll and Bute for Change but remains an attendee at SNP group meetings and retains his party membership. This is despite the fact that the SNP’s National Compliance Manager confirmed to Group Leader, Councillor Sandy Taylor, that SNP rules automatically demand that anyone who joins another grouping loses their party membership.
- Would Councillor Robert MacIntyre keep the paid post of Area Chair of Bute and Cowal under the current administration, for which he fought hard and for which he sacrificed his SNP membership?
- Would Councillor Breslin be considered purged of his offence and invited back in? Since this would involve working with Council Leader Walsh, would he consider that the acquisition of a long spoon would be worth the restitution of party membership?
- What would former SNP Council Leader James Robb do? After all, while he had not proposed the unitary council that his fellow SNP Council Leader McCuish tried to bring about in the SNP’s 2012-2013 year of fratricides, he had secured agreement from the Conservative and Liberal Democrats to join his coalition, keeping it alive while he, as Councillor McCuish, fought to make his party accept its primary responsibility to the electorate. The NEC’s response to this was to put Councillor Robb’s political windows in.
- Would former SNP Councillors Roddy McCuish and Mary Jean Devon be invited to rejoin – and would they even consider it? After the brutal destruction of Councillor McCuish’s second attempt at leading an administration as he had been elected to do, he and Councillor Devon, who had supported his position, joined the Argyll, Lomond and the Isles grouping – and lost their SNP membership for so doing. And yes, this does point to the SNP’s asymmetric application of its rules, with Councillor Blair permitted to do exactly the same as a member of the Argyll and Bute for Change group, with impunity.
The tapestry woven by the SNP’s eighteen months of unhinged irresponsibility in deliberate self-destruction will not be easily unravelled.
How would the displacement of current coalition partners by the SNP group work out?
It is hard to see that this would be the outcome, because its impact on a council trying to heal destructive divisions would damage its stability.
The resentment by other councilors of the SNP group, should they replace part of the current all-but-the-SNP administration, would be sore. As a party , the SNP swung a year long wrecking ball through the chamber – taking out its own councillors – in its fevered efforts to get its party group out of power over 2012-13 to protect the independence vote from the consequences of any unpopular decisions.
The SNP made Argyll itself the butt of sniggers and jokes across Scotland, of the ‘there they go again’ variety. This reputational damage makes it hard for the council to attract the best candidates to fill vacant posts. Why, for instance, was it not possible to get an economic development expert into the then vacant Executive Director post which carries that responsibility – the one more important to the limping Argyll than any other? Argyll and Bute is a bottom-feeding council where Argyll needs it to be a star.
And where is there proven ability and experience in depth in the group who are formal members of the SNP group of councilors, adequate to displace experienced and able post holders in the current administration? The rookie and untried element is very high.
So on balance, with some of the most able councillors in the chamber members of the Liberal Democrat and Conservative groups, logic must suggest that what the SNP group are deliberating on tomorrow is whether or not to throw their hat in with the current mixumgatherum administration, make Argyll a more or less unitary council and simply establish a presence hidden in the thickets.
Whether or not Council Leader Walsh has invited them to consider this or whether it is a rehabilitation wheeze of their own, takes second place to the SNP’s need now to shore up the position of its local MSP in advance of the 2016 Scottish elections. The recovery of the SNP in public respect in Argyll and Bute is central to that – and it will be an uphill task.
Know them by what they do not by what they say. Those who put party interest before Argyll’s and before their constituents have been seen to do that in large measure. Why would they not again slavishly obey party instructions. They’ve got proven form.