The great strength of the SNP is that it knows quite clearly its intended destination: Independence for Scotland.
The route map to the destination is however less precise, hence debates about plan A, plan B, strategy, democratic mandates, timing of a referendum and so on. I would describe this as a debate about choosing a democratic route to our final destination, but with all the uncertainties that entails, and with lots of high consequence decisions to be made along the way. Like a train journey, we need not only to know the final destination, we need to choose the best route to get there, and to have the right people driving the train.
Taking this analogy of a journey to be navigated, we need to have tracks laid to follow and we need to have drivers to make the decisions along the way: when to switch tracks, when to slow down or accelerate, when to toot warnings and so forth.
A political party without effective governance, is like a train without tracks and drivers.
I see governance in two ways.
First, what I would call the governance architecture; the fixed components that should be able to be described in diagrammatical form. Reading the latest version of the party’s constitution and rules our architecture includes a National Conference, a National Executive Committee and its related committee structure, Regional Steering Committees, National Assemblies, Constituency Associations, Branches, and Affiliated Organisations. They need to have very clearly defined membership and powers. It should be very clear how they all relate to one another. This is the basics. (I can’t find it described in diagrammatic form which I think might help).
Second, and of particular importance, we need to know how things work throughout this architecture. We need in particular to understand the processes and decision making that takes place. Where does authority lie? How should decisions be taken? What are the actions and behaviours expected of everyone from branch member of party leader? What are the ethical standards required? What communications must take place? How open and transparent should processes and decision making be? In other words, what is the working culture of the party as well as its structure.
For large complex organisations in particular, we need to establish some basic governance principles to guide us and make sense of our organisational architecture and working practices. Indeed, in organisational research that I used to undertake in an earlier life, searching out the underlying principles that guided organisation was always an important starting point.
So today I read all 193 pages of the party’s constitution, rules and standing orders (November 2020 edition). To put it charitably, I have struggled to find a coherent set of underlying principles that have been clearly and consistently applied. Now, I am the first to recognise there are many sets of governance principles to choose from, from formal principles that are a legal requirement for large corporations, to less formal principles for local community organisations. But all should be clear, consistent and applied however simple or complex they may be.
Since we are dealing here with a political organisation, it might be instructive to consider the twelve principles of Good Democratic Governance as set out by the Council of Europe. They cover issues such as ethical conduct, rule of law, efficiency and effectiveness, transparency, sound financial management and accountability, under the following headings (in no particular order):
· Participation and representation
· Competence and capacity
· Ethical conduct
· Efficiency and Effectiveness
· Openness and transparency
· Rule of law
· Sound Financial management
· Human rights and cultural diversity
· Innovation and openness to change
· Sustainability and long term orientation
I am not arguing this has to be the set of principles the SNP should adopt. What I am arguing is we need to agree what our set of underlying principles should be.
However, if I use the above as a working example of principles what would I say in relation to the National Executive Committee? First, there is no serious commitment to openness and transparency. For example the only statement relating to minutes and papers in the standing orders are as follows:
“Minutes and other papers submitted to the Committee shall be treated in confidence. Any complaint that a Committee Member has injured the interests of the party by sharing the contents of, or copying such papers to, or wilfully misrepresenting the discussions of the Committee to the media or another political party, will be reported by the National Secretary to the Disciplinary Committee, for investigation under the Disciplinary Rules”.
There is however no balancing statement of any rights of access by members or local office bearers. Indeed, there is no statement relating to openness or transparency at all. Secrecy is enshrined, openness is ignored.
Take two other principles that might be considered as complimentary, the need for both diversity and competence. There is positive emphasis on some aspects of cultural diversity. However, there is nothing at all related to competence and capacity. It is perplexing to me that competence and capacity is not considered at all throughout the 193 pages.
I also have a professional interest in ethics and the importance thereof. At its most basic there are two ways of looking at ethics. First, are there clear and sensible rules to be followed by members and office holders? Second, does the outcome of behaviours do no unjust harm to others? Nowhere in the 193 pages is there any consideration of both aspects of ethical behaviour. I believe there have been examples of actions and decisions taken that have done unjust harm to individual members. Few have had any effective redress. Should we not be seeking high ethical standards and make them explicit?
And so on. Oh, and one more point. Where are the Regional Steering Committees? Written into the constitution, but nowhere to be seen.
I think therefore there is much work to be done to agree the fundamental principles which should govern party governance. If we don't deal with this, it creates a context for abuse of power and denial of basic rights to members. But we can fix this.