Tribalism and Iron Discipline

The SNP’s new funding model depends on regular contributions from ordinary members, rather than large donations
JEFF J MITCHELL/GETTY IMAGES

By Alasdair Galloway:

One of the qualities regularly observed in the SNP over the years has been its “tribalism” – the SNP “tribe” against the Unionist “tribes”. Whether this is fair or not, it has been one of the assets of the party, insofar as. far and away, the biggest part of the independence movement (SNP) stood against a much more balkanised Unionist movement – Labour, Tory, Lib Dem. If you believed in independence there weren’t too many other places you could go. If not the SNP, then the choice was between the Greens and a variety of splinter, splintering, splintered Socialist groups.

This though is in danger of being lost with the SNP starting to divide between the Nicola Sturgeon Party and the Alex Salmond Party. As I noted in a previous piece about current goings on, how the Unionist movement must rejoice at this sort of development.

Much social media writing clearly begins with the assumption that Sturgeon knows more about the ‘Salmond conspiracy’ than she is letting on, OR that she and those around her are happy to carry on in the subordinate  role of a devolved administration, which for them is nice and comfy and well-paid. What’s not to like?

Taken in its entirety, the following have at one time or another been  fingered

  1. The First Minister
  2. Her Deputy, John Swinney
  3. Her most senior Civil Servant, Leslie Evans
  4. Judith McKinnon, Head of People Advice at the Scottish Government
  5. Pretty much the entire Crown Office and Prosecution Service
  6. Police Scotland
  7. The Chief Executive of the SNP, forecast to sweep the board if there is an election this year
  8. Its Chief Operating Officer

I think that pretty much covers it, but let’s be clear that what is being alleged is that the political leadership of Scotland, the senior administrators of far and away its leading party, and its Prosecution Service and Police service are lawbreakers.

This reminds me of one of my favourite lines from one of my favourite films, “All the Presidents Men”. Woodward and Bernstein are about to publish a story alleging wrongdoing by John Mitchell who had been Nixon’s Attorney General (and partner in his legal firm). Their editor, Ben Bradlee, tells them “you’re about to write a story alleging that the Attorney General, the most important law officer in the United States is a crook. You had better be right”.

What is being alleged in Scotland goes much further than this – not only is corruption alleged in political and legal leadership, but in the Police as well. Moreover, while I can understand, if not wholly accept, that for reasons I don’t understand, Sturgeon got involved in a conspiracy to put to Alex Salmond on the golf course for the rest of his life, the allegation is that, assuming Evans and McKinnon were complicit, as were Murrell and Susan Ruddick, we are making the same allegation about James Wolfe (as head of Crown office) and the Chief Constable! Why would they go along with this? Was Alex Salmond really THAT unpopular? Or did he never stand his round?

Put at its simplest, what is it that lies at the bottom of this that could cause the independence movement not only to be rent in two but just when independence seems more likely than at any other time. The debate just now seems to be shifting away from questions like “what will independence do to my pocket?” to questions such as “can we not do better on our own?” and “do we really want to be part of Boris Johnson’s UK?”

One very tentative hypothesis is that the reason is not that significant, given the focus that the Unionist parties are putting on whether Sturgeon lied to the Parliament. In other words, their focus is not on substance but on technicalities, when we all know the former have much more cutting influence on the general public than the latter. Were the substance more important, you can bet they would be on that already!

The other quality of the SNP – and the other side of this argument – is its “iron discipline” – that you didn’t depart from the official line in public. Dirty linen was washed only in private. Other parties have envied this for years, but it’s pretty much non-existent now, as debate rages in the press between members of the SNP on the best way forward to secure independence.

Yesterday’s (virtual, owing to Covid) National Assembly, according to Grouse Beater, had a “chat facility” which was promptly switched off when members were (virtually) shouting at the leadership to *quit waffling* and get on with it. Chat facility promptly switched off again.”  (https://twitter.com/Grouse_Beater/status/1353300107962294273). Is this really any way to run a democratic organization?

What is meant by “iron discipline”? Does it mean that once a policy decision has been taken, then there is collective responsibility, and party members are expected to follow it? That, at least, could follow a democratic event, such as an Assembly. However, to shut down dissenting voices to secure support for the leadership’s Plan B, which critics had been pleading for for years, is hardly democratic? Does it not reduce the notion of iron discipline to one where the leadership presents future policy which the members are expected – or required – to accept. Is the silencing of dissenting voices DURING THE DEBATE about the way forward indicative of a democratic system?

Or does it mean that the SNP, like most political parties, is now run by a “leadership class” with the power to reward and punish, to control information and procedures, as Robert Michels forecast of political parties (ie not ONLY the SNP) in his book “Political Parties”.

Put short, I suppose, what I am asking is “is iron discipline an example of Michels’ iron law of oligarchy?” How far are the events surrounding Salmond explained by the conduct of a leadership class in the SNP?

Perhaps somewhat, but it also needs to be remembered that it does NOT explain the conduct of the others – the Civil Servants (who would be expected not to act on instructions that they knew to be illegal) or the Lord Advocate and the Chief Constable (whose functions after all are to maintain the rule of law).

However, with that said, the unwillingness of the SNP’s leadership to conduct an open debate, or indeed to conduct their business openly, is a significant reason for their current problems. And one to be deprecated.

12 thoughts on “Tribalism and Iron Discipline”

  1. I am not a member of the SNP and hesitate to say much about the Committee investigation into the handling of harassment complaints. Here are a few straws in the wind.

    The fundamental causes of health and other inequalities can only properly be addressed if Scotland has devolved control of the economy and welfare, or better has independence. I wrote to Phillipa Whitford to ask why the SNP was not campaigning strongly and loudly on this issue.She did not reply. I asked the same of my MP and was told that the political will was lacking.

    A country that is seeking independence might be expecied to give an indication of the political system it would adopt once independent. The Nordic countries and Ireland have been put forward as possible models.

    No campaigning, indeed no great information, has been put forward or taken place. Instead, the Growth Commission report has explcitly rejected both Ireland and the Nordic countries as models. I am told by my MP that the Growth Commission report is very unpopular with members but the leadership has given public support to the report.

    The Herald has this. It is not quite the whole story,perhaps

    https://www.heraldscotland.com/news/18966700.government-conceded-salmond-case-watershed-meeting-legal-advice-shows/

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  2. Sorry to nitpick. Commentary let down by the golf course remark ( Salmond would have been locked up for a long time ) and the not standing his round comment which also jars badly with the gravity of the matter.
    Gordon Dangerfield’s surmise that the criminal referral ( without the consent of the complainers) was seen as a clever wheeze to bury a botched disciplinary procedure designed for one person only sounds about right. The people who wasted public resources to pursue private agendas have to be held to account.

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    1. Salmond was charged with 14 offences, and found not guilty of 13 and 1 not proven. Also, anything that could be used against him in 2014 was used against Salmond – but NONE of this. Not a whisper. NADA. Not even the alleged “events” at Edinburgh Airport. Is it so quiet?
      Also re Gordon Dangerfield, the criminal referral was only necessary because they tried to act on the botched procedure. If they had stood back and looked at it – I mean, only the FM, her senior Civil Servant and the admin leadership of her party – they would quietly have binned it.
      And btw, criminal referral was hardly “burying” the whole affair, but rather kicking it right into the public domain with a chance of serious failure (Salmond not guilty on at least one count).
      And as I note, whose private agendas. OK, lets say Sturgeon, Swinney, Murrell and Ruddick – all politicians – are the private agenda authors. How have they taken Wolfe, Police Scotland, even Evans and McKinnon, along with them?

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  3. The oft repeated word in your article is – alleged.
    Facts, that are circulating;
    £55,0000 of membership fees spent coaching the Alphabet women in the Salmond case.
    £150,000 of membership fees paid out to settle a defamation case that Alyn Smith brought upon himself – iron discipline on members’ behaviour and SNP finances?
    Other SNP Iron discipline instances – Ms Thomson, McDonald,Hanvey, Ferrier shunned.
    A £500,000 independence campaign fund yet to be accounted for.
    Promise of unhindered provision of documents to the Fabiani committee – seems that unhindered includes the right to redact, redact, redact, document content.
    Another word circulating – this time regarding the Prosecutions Services malicious prosecutions.

    If it walks like one, behaves like one, good chance it is one.

    i

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  4. Congratulations on bringing Michels’ iron law of oligarchy to the discussion , I think you are the first blogger I’ve seen do this .You’ve moved forward the analysis of what’s happening in the SNP , made a kind of qualitative leap . Although Michels’ book specifically assessed the nature of political parties , he intended his law to apply to all complex organisations . I’m eager to see how you develop this critique.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I know nothing of the iron law concept but for what it’s worth here are my thoughts on party debate from an ordinary but interested bystander

    Over the last year I have attended umpteen zoom meetings on joined in big family group chats.. From my experience holding a debate online must be a nightmare – multiple people wanting to talk and get their point across, lags in connection meaning overlap of speakers, folk getting frustrated and using chat to express this in a way they might not at an actual meeting, and multiple agendas to make space for. Possibly pre covid the Assembly forum model might have worked better and probably too real life branch meetings help to contain some of the divisions. If ordinary folk feel heard & involved and have to communicate their views in person there is maybe more likelihood of reaching consensus no matter how uneasy. There has to be a sense of common purpose to even join in such groups and a need to persuade rather than demand change

    For long enough the SNP party unity has been a real strength but, when a party gets so big, different opinions and agendas make it hardly a surprise when cracks form. All parties seem to be grappling with this just now as in Tory/Ukip (and look how that turned out) & Labour/momentum and they no doubt have had their own intense analysis to find ways to hold together. It is good that so many folk are passionate about the independence cause. (on both sides) and that debate and divisions are explored but it must be really difficult for those at the top to manage this effectively – are there any political models that you feel have better systems of coping?

    And, when at the top, who do you trust, how can you lead if constantly caught up in managing dissent? Now we are all able to fire off our thoughts online competing factions quickly hook up and pursue their favoured agendas with zeal, but without facing any consequences or expected to solve any problems. Not wanting to play follow my leader is fine but surely if you are so unhappy with the ways things are going you need to put in the hard yards and either work within the organisation to affect change, or leave and strike out on your own.

    I’m not saying the SNP leadership are perfect or above criticism but they have governed effectively enough for me to offer my support and loyalty. But please don’t shoot me down for my views – I will seem naive or blind to many of you I’m sure but on this site at least I do feel able to speak up and express my views without facing a tidal wave of abuse for thinking different thoughts

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  6. On the face of it, the “evidence” against Sturgeon seems damming, but much of it a speculative at best.
    A political conspiracy to side-line Salmond would be conceivable if he had threatened a come-back. Had he?
    But then to involve the UK civil service?
    Senior Law Officers?
    The police?
    That is a stretch too far. Why would top people jeopardise careers, reputations and BIG pensions for an internal political thing?
    Where were the opposition parties in this The mainstream media? Have they all been asleep? Though their focus may well have centred on “get Salmond”
    The Big Beast of the SNP. I recall a political journalist writing more than a decade ago—
    “there is a big prize for whoever brings down Salmond”.
    Yes, indeed there is. From the British State.

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  7. The show trial Inquiry is a waste of time and money. No one did anything wrong. The Police did not want charges brought. Nor did the woman. The authorities were advised it would not stand up in Court. Lesley Evans and the Lord Advocate wasting £Millions of public money.

    There are more important things to worry about a pandemic and people dying. Brexit and the economy.

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  8. If there was iron discipline in the Party. Nicola would have dropped any investigate or Inquiry. Instead of staying out of it, as required by Law and legal rules. Ministerial code of conduct. Not to interfere.

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  9. Like you Isabel,I ‘m confused about that . NS doesn’t seem to be a risk taker .She shows every sign of someone who consults experts and seeks advice from experienced political colleagues .That has been the hallmark of her dealing with the Covid crisis . It’s like the whole political kaleidoscope is currently being shaken up and the fragments have yet to fall into any kind of clearly recognisable pattern . Perhaps much will fall into place in the next few weeks as inquiries and legal proceedings grind their way towards conclusions .

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