When I first joined the SNP as a teenager, the party leader was Arthur Donaldson. Subsequent leaders have been Billy Wolfe, Gordon Wilson, Alex Salmond (in two separate spells) John Swinney and Nicola Sturgeon. They all had their own unique styles. They all had their own strengths and weaknesses. During this time too there have been innumerable senior office bearers (including myself during the first period of Alex Salmond’s leadership) and many hundreds of past members of the National Executive Committee.
However, as leaders have come and gone the party has remained through good times and bad, and so too has the ultimate aim of independence for Scotland. I’m stating the obvious to make an important point. Our cause and the party are much, much greater than any one leader or any set of senior office bearers. The people we elect to lead are the custodians of something much more important than any one of us.
That is why I have always held fast to the belief that our leadership needs to be collegiate in nature and in many respects driven from the bottom up through effective engagement with the membership.
As membership grew in size from around 25,000 to over 100,000 in a matter of months after the 2014 referendum, the party has faced the challenge of growth. How do we ensure effective engagement? How do we marry the roles of being a party of government and also a campaigning party for radical constitutional change? How do we harness the pool of talent in the party to support the range of responsibilities that fall to us? These are challenging questions (there are more to be asked of course) deserving of serious consideration and debate.
In human organisations things are never perfect. There is always the need to strive to do things better. It is this aspect that in my judgment has been weakest in recent years. There has been a lack of an effective focus on improving the broad range of governance arrangements. There has also been a lack of attention to encouraging an open and trust inducing culture in the party that should go hand in hand with formal governance arrangements. As a result therefore the answers to the questions above have been poorly addressed, if addressed at all.
I am only too aware that in times past things were far from perfect. I can vividly recall the turmoils of the past, such as the expulsion of the 79 Group members, questions around transparency regarding party finances and so forth. So conflicts are not new. However, I cannot recall a period when the fundamental governance arrangements were of such sustained concern.
There has been a collective failure to build on what was done better in the past. Far from perfect though it may have been, the NEC of thirty years ago was more transparent and more engaged with members than is currently the case. It was of a size that allowed all members to play a full part in discussions. I cannot recall a single debate where any individual was prevented from having a fair hearing, even when presenting critical views. The prevailing culture was on the whole supportive of proper scrutiny and debate.
This had repercussions, that I think were in the main positive. Let me give one example. When elected members were subject to tabloid criticism, the default position was not to throw people under the bus in a panic, but rather to gather the facts, and operate on the basis of innocent until proven guilty. Natural justice was…. how can I put this…natural. There was in the party a culture of looking out for one another to a greater extent than I find today. Far from perfect of course, but better than today.
We need to go back to first principles of what makes for good governance. We should import from other large complex organisations good practice. We should seek the highest of standards not the least we can get away with. We should seek to embed a culture of working with each other that nurtures fair dealing, respect and trust.
I know the above are easy words. The issue is how are we going to do this? In subsequent blogs over the next couple of weeks, I will be looking in more detail at what, in my experience, could be done to improve things. There is always scope for improvement. It is not too late: And we all have a part to play.
This has been the first of 5 blogs I intend publishing over the course of the next two weeks. In my next blog I am going to consider the basic tenets of good governance that should be embedded within a new NEC.