Such is the chaos and embedded culture of lying in the SNP that their press office would probably insist that the Scotland squad’s jerseys were pink even though they wore lilac. What was already a Laurel and Hardy production of a leadership contest took another pratfall on the weekend with a bizarre deception over membership numbers culminating in the departure of Peter Murrell as party boss.
Mr Murrell was the SNP chief executive, the husband of the First Minister and, by his own admission, ultimately the person responsible for misleading the media, the candidates and the country on the truth about SNP membership figures. Last week, after two of the three candidates in the race wrote an open letter effectively saying they had no faith in the election process, the SNP finally revealed that the party has just over 72,000 members of the SNP, which is down from 104,000 at the end of 2021.
Though that is a scythe to the membership, had the numbers been released at the beginning of this month-long spectacle of shallow talent, then it might well have been the end of the affair. But, hold on a minute. Just last month the party had denied reports of falling membership. The Sunday Mail newspaper revealed the membership was down by 30,000. But the SNP said that figure wasn't just wrong, they said it was wrong by about 30,000 actually. They went online to claim the story was “drivel” and planted stories in rival newspapers to discredit the journalism of others. It now turns out that figure was just about bang on. It turns out the party hierarchy was lying to the media, to the public and, in choosing to place the aggressive rebuttal in the SNP-supporting National newspaper, it was lying to its own membership.
The ‘diving bell’ depth of that political cynicism was more than embarrassing for Murray Foote, the former newspaper editor turned SNP spin doctor who had pressed home the counter-attack on these figures. Mr Foote, who gave the impression of being a good man fallen among thieves, made it clear he had been misled himself and resigned honourably. But that only put the focus on the question of who had misled him?
The only person completely acquainted with the true figures, though not acquainted with the truth itself, was Mr Murrell. What is amazing is that it took the threat of a no-confidence vote by the party’s ruling executive to force him out of office the next day. He should have been fired immediately, but by whom, his wife?
Of course, losing 30,000 members also means losing quite a lot of money in subscriptions. And we know that Peter Murrell is closely acquainted with the finances of the party because he had loaned it over £100,000 in 2021 which, by the way, the party failed to declare in accordance with the rules. There is also an ongoing police investigation into the party finances and the ‘missing’ £600,000 under Peter Murrell, so who knows what will next emerge from the undergrowth?
All we do know so far is that there is a spiralling crisis in the SNP which had the party’s leadership lying to the media, lying to their own press chief and lying to the public while the SNP leader, the deputy leader, the chief executive, the head of press and 30,000 members have walked away from the cause for reasons that are not entirely established.
And where does all of this leave the contest for leader? At the weekend, there were serious questions from one of the nominees about whether the election should go ahead. Watching the temporary chief executive Mike Russell flailing around trying to address this rising panic is like watching someone trying to put out a moor fire with a damp pocket handkerchief.
If the SNP do not have confidence in the process why should anyone else? What began as a crisis engulfing the SNP could end up lapping at the doorstep of Scottish democracy because the person who wins this discredited process becomes the nominee for First Minister of Scotland. Whether it is Humza Yousaf, the hopeless Health Secretary, whose ego and ambition combined outpace the NHS waiting lists, or Kate Forbes, who would make George Osborne’s austerity budgeting look like a mere flesh wound, Scotland is going to be in bad hands while the alley-fight for control of the SNP continues.
Even if it is Ash Regan who wins, or particularly if it is Ash Regan who wins, we will be in iceberg lettuce territory waiting to see if a salad vegetable lasts longer than as the new First Minister.
Meanwhile, the job of tackling the cost-of-living crisis, cutting waiting times for healthcare, and putting the country back on its feet will carry on being neglected as it has been for the last 15 years. It is hilarious to hear Mr Russell, the Fireman Sam of the drama, describe the election contest so far as a “bùrach”, the Gaelic word for a mess in a desperate attempt to throw some colourful chaff out to distract from the party’s problems. Once again this is the SNP selling the public short on the truth. Mr Russell is wrong. This isn’t a bùrach, it’s a clusterbùrach.
Jackie Baillie is MSP for Dumbarton, Scottish Labour’s deputy leader and her party’s spokesperson for health