It is an unpleasant expression but, in a courtroom context where a man’s liberty was at stake, an understandable tactic. Create doubt in the minds of jurors and it will hang over them when it comes to a verdict. This week – quite astonishingly – two candidates aspiring to be First Minister of Scotland set out to “put a smell” on the process governing that contest. It will not go away.
There are two possible explanations for this behaviour and it is difficult to know which is more alarming for Scotland as a whole. The first is that Kate Forbes and Ash Regan have genuine reasons to believe the process is liable to being corrupted from within.
“It is your responsibility,” they told SNP chief executive Peter Murrell, “to ensure that the leadership election is transparent, fair and equitable.” These words were designed to convey the impression that it might be none of these things; otherwise why write and publicise the letter?
For anyone with difficulty joining up dots, Ms Forbes’ campaign manager, Michelle Thomson, called for a “robust, experienced, third-party auditor of both the ballot processes and the eventual tally of the vote”. Why else would the absence of such a person “further undermine trust in SNP HQ”?
The second explanation is that there are no genuine grounds for concerns that ballot-rigging is in the air, in which case the precise objective of the exercise was to create the smell in expectation that it will damage the candidate favoured by the party hierarchy. So was the purpose of the Forbes-Regan initiative to counter a conspiracy or to create one? Take your pick. The implications of either answer speak volumes about the nature of the candidates and the organisation which holds so much sway over Scottish society.
It will not end here. If Humza Yousaf wins, the result will be tainted by innuendo that it was all fixed for him from the start, by fair means or foul. If Ms Forbes wins, her willingness to “put a smell” on party and process will not be forgiven or forgotten.
If these were purely matters for the SNP, then it might be possible to enjoy its long overdue come-uppance. However, the scary thought is that one of them is going to be running Scotland, from within a house that is not just divided but riven by animosities which this miserable campaign has uncovered. What chance is there of a Scottish Government under either Ms Forbes or Mr Yousaf that will concentrate on the real challenges Scotland faces, unimpeded by the culture wars and factional hostilities that have been laid bare?
The question of membership numbers is related but separate. It should come as no surprise that the SNP’s paid mouthpieces simply lied. As so often happens, the lie is more damaging than the truth since 72,000 members is not a shameful number. It’s just 30,000 fewer than claimed.
Mass desertion over the past couple of years demonstrates the fickleness of political fads. It costs £1 a month to join the SNP and £5 a year for students. So it is hardly surprising that they come and go. The numbers don’t mean a lot. Just don’t use them as evidence to break up a country.
In this election, three mediocre candidates are united by only one common thread – independence. They don’t even trust each other to run a clean election, yet they demand that trust be placed in them to establish a separate state.
While the objective of the Forbes-Regan letter may have been to “put a smell” on the process, the campaign as a whole has given us a whiff of just how poorly Scotland has been served for the past 16 years. The lesson is inescapable. Scotland will not move forward until it has competent politicians, driven by the vision of a better society for its own sake, rather than permanent division round a constitutional abstraction.