Provoked by the blatantly political persecution of Craig Murray, who blogged on the trial of Alex Salmond and landed himself with contempt of court charges, I – we – are bound to ask what factional forces are at work within the Scottish National Party (SNP) that can lead to the prosecution of a reasoned critic of the leadership of the SNP? There seems little doubt that the SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon – or her ‘office’ – have a strong desire to close down Murray’s continual critique of her stance on Scottish independence. Murray, with a large blog following (he raised £46,000 from his readers for his legal defence in little more than 24 hours) is a loyal supporter of Salmond, whose stance on independence is more shall we say pronounced than Sturgeon’s appears to be. I don’t want to compare Sturgeon and Salmond’s positions since I have scant knowledge of the SNP’s internal battles. But this is a battle that spilled over into the courts, with the apparent backing or at least compliance of the Scottish Police Service in the persecution of Murray. This takes internal political party factionalism to a new level in the UK. What is happening in Hungary, Poland, the United States – all western democracies with myriad political interferences with the judicial process - is not supposed to happen here, least of all in Scotland with its century’s old enlightenment traditions.
The best commentator on the Craig Murray case is Murray himself, since the mainstream media steer as clear of him as they do of David Icke, apart from the occasional character assassination by the likes of the Daily Record, Scotland’s version of the Daily Mirror. When his profile is raised in such articles, he appears as a crazed conspiracy theorist, prone to delusions of all-seeing wisdom and (needless to say) possessing undeserved personal riches – the key signifier of the con-artist.
All this merely emerges from policy differences. Murray, a la Salmond takes a more stout stance on independence than does Sturgeon (I recognise that this simplifies the situation but it suffices as an explanation for all the apparent consequences). Now, let’s look at what to my mind has been a comparable and possibly more significant intra-party policy struggle which played out in a swamp of vendettas and personal denigration. Let’s consider the contemporaneous Labour Party report into the conduct of Party HQ staff behaviour during the last three or four years, related to but not exclusively dealing with the anti-Semitic issue.
As a former Labour Party full-time employee and later MP, I found this report fascinating, not least because the internal affairs of our political parties are rarely exposed from the inside.* For the most part we have to rely on outsiders to hear whispers from ‘informed’ sources to tell us what’s going on. This is very convenient for the powers that be who wish to retain deniability (a key characteristic of e.g. the personality, not policy induced rivalry between Blair and Brown). Former party staffers may write up memoirs in later years, but for every current cohort the omerta of party loyalty is usually strong enough to prevent self-destructive stories emerging in the spaces between winnable elections.
We will eventually hear the truth of the current internal SNP power struggle, but thanks to a leak we have had chapter and verse on how factionalism played out in recent years in the Labour Party. It is apparent to me that this first iteration of one battle (now irretrievably lost by the Corbynistas) is now leading into a somewhat less dramatic second act, which will be just as politically fascinating as the first but predictably will be submerged by the engulfing political seas, namely, the ever present need to move on (regardless) and the absolute imperative not to be seen to be navel gazing whilst there’s a crisis going on. Obviously, a crisis can always be formulated if needs be to avert attention from a party’s internal strife, and often but not always that invokes an external threat. Covid-19 has currently serendipitously drained interest in what would otherwise be a major political scandal of the day. The consequences of this rapid and fortuitous burning of history will merely be sifted in the embers of ‘what if?’ as in what if the Labour Party had actually worked together to win the 2017 general election? That is a major ‘what if’ in today’s circumstances, by anybody’s standard.
What is apparent in the leaked report is that many senior staffers within the Labour hierarchy fell prey to a silly catch-all ‘fight the vermin’ language which clearly impacted on their judgement. I only recall one or two names appearing in the report who worked for the party when I did, but they, with decades of experience behind them should have known better. What, I wonder, even with the election of Corbyn as leader, led them to infantalise their years of experience in their shocked reaction to his election? To illustrate my point, I simply can’t understand how political operatives of any worth could still imagine that their social media gibberish could remain secure in an age where political operatives, if they are semi-literate, could pick up from any newspaper report how insecure electronic communications are.
Like a pretend Civil Service the core staff of any political party has a fixed, self-referencing idea of what they are working for (in contradistinction to the membership or the electorate), which centres around a received wisdom passed down through generations of organisers and places competence and stability as the best reflections of their calling. So the likes of John Smith, the amiable image of a trustworthy (if dull) bank manager will always fit the bill as leader, absent The Messiah. Isn’t this what voters want? People don’t want to be overloaded with ideas when five little pledges on a card will do, which is a lot easier to hand out on a street stall. Sometimes the policies have to fit the organisation and the games-playing of their dissemination, not the other way round. Hence the continual disparaging references in the leaked Labour report to ‘Trots,’ a catch-all put down of any member who has some independent frame of mind. I think the indiscriminate disparagement of even mildly independently minded members revealed in this report demonstrates a political naivete on the part of the supposedly sophisticated senior players that one wonders whether even if they had been ‘on side’ with Corbyn they could have made much of a useful contribution to the campaign for No. 10.
Perhaps this is how Craig Murray sees the hierarchy of the SNP. The ‘civil services’ (and Murray was a civil servant) of our political parties won’t differ very much in their behaviours. They will all see themselves as the permanent embodiment of the cause, whereas members can come and go, and elected members need to be treated with suspicion, or as I know from personal experience, with derision for their perceived lack of ability. As the much loved and quoted election agent's saying has it, candidates are merely a legal necessity, and more often than not they need shepherding and controlling as much as possible to avoid embarrassment.
This is an attitude that lies at the core of Labour’s leaked report, and more than likely is embedded in the culture of the SNP too. It may speak of why Nicola Sturgeon fell out with Alex Salmond. What should we call this syndrome but the primacy of the party? And today, ironically so far as Labour is concerned the primacy of the party has been 'restored' under Starmer, which worryingly means that the party, whatever that is, will have no primacy at all (this needs unpicking in a separate article).
I like to think that I coined the phrase ‘nothing dies faster than a dead politician’ and so far as Corbyn goes I am sure we will see the truth of that – his wiping from history will take less effort than a swipe with an anti-bacterial wipe – but what is clear is that Salmond seems intent on not being buried yet. More ugly scenes are likely on the Royal Mile. Meanwhile, Labour will be silently filing its malcontents away, asking them to quietly acknowledge that they got it all wrong and should behave accordingly. The ‘Left’ will oblige by tearing itself apart and the party’s civil service will sleep peacefully again.
* Peter Watt, a former Labour Party general secretary wrote a rather sad self-exculpatory and bitter story of his brief tenure in that job under Gordon Brown: Inside Out: my story of betrayal and cowardice at the heart of New Labour, Biteback, 2010. This tome was produced with the assistance of Isabel Oakeshott, which is revealing in itself. I'll let Google do the rest.)