Ian Swanson: Embarrassments fail to derail SNP

SNP supporters celebrate Michelle Thomson's election in May, but the recent property deals row has cast a shadow over the party. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

SNP supporters celebrate Michelle Thomson's election in May, but the recent property deals row has cast a shadow over the party. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

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Nearly 5000 delegates will gather for the SNP’s annual conference in Aberdeen this weekend, celebrating the party’s stunning success at the Westminster election in May and looking ahead to near-certain victory in next year’s Holyrood vote.

The record attendance reflects the massive membership boost the Nationalists have seen since their defeat in last year’s referendum.

And the mood will be decidedly upbeat. They have a huge lead in the polls and are on the verge of winning an unprecedented third term in charge of the Scottish Parliament.

But under the surface, not everything is quite as rosy as the SNP would like.

The row over Edinburgh West MSP Michelle Thomson’s property deals is a major embarrassment for the party.

Until the row broke, she was the SNP’s business spokeswoman at Westminster – but her own business had involved buying homes from struggling owners for below the market value and re-selling them at a big profit, sometimes on the same day.

Culture Secretary and Linlithgow MSP Fiona Hyslop is at the centre of another row – over £150,000 of public money handed to DF Concerts, the organiser of T in the Park, despite its record profits of £6.2 million. A former SNP adviser, Jennifer Dempsie, had been working for the company and set up meetings with ministers, including Ms Hyslop, ahead of the funding application.

The SNP has largely avoided 
scandals and embarrassments during its eight years in power – and it is remarkable that a governing party is still so popular after such a long period. But could it be the shine is finally beginning to come off?

The creation of Police Scotland from a merger of Scotland’s eight former forces – one of the SNP’s flagship policies – has led to one controversy after another, from claims that Strathclyde-style policing has been imposed across the country, including widespread use of stop-and-search and deployment of armed officers, to cutbacks in control centres and the tragic failure to respond to a fatal crash on the M9.

Opposition parties also highlight cuts to college places, declining literacy rates in schools and NHS waiting targets being repeatedly missed.

A poll in the summer found that only 25 per cent of voters thought the SNP had done a good job on the economy, 34 per cent said it had done well on the NHS, 30 per cent on education and just 23 per cent approved the party’s record on crime and justice.

Nevertheless, an amazing 62 per cent said they planned to back the SNP in the constituency vote at next year’s elections and 54 per cent in the list vote. Labour, meanwhile, was stuck on 20 per cent support.

Even if voters judge Nicola Sturgeon and her colleagues are not hitting the mark in key areas, they are not going to punish them at the ballot box. A disappointing record, it seems, is no barrier to re-election.

Is this a starry-eyed, religious-style devotion to the Nationalists? One academic has claimed the SNP currently functions “more like a cargo cult than a conventional political party”, successfully persuading a majority of the Scottish people that a secular millennium is just around the corner.

Or have voters weighed up the SNP performance, looked at the alternatives on offer and concluded the SNP looks the best option?

Whatever the interpretation, it seems clear that, at least for the time being, the SNP has established itself as Scotland’s natural party of government.