19 June 2008


Readers in the North will have heard a strange noise today. I suspect it would have sounded something like this:


It was, it transpires, the sound of the administration on Highland Council deflating, as the SNP Members walked out. I recall the Aviemore SNP Conference, when the Independent Councillors who turned up to welcome the Party to their balliwick painted a rosy picture, with the two sides working together and enjoying it.

Turns out it wasn't like that. The SNP were frustrated that the Independents were too independently-minded and would just ignore collective lines if they disagreed. Meanwhile, the Independents weren't overly keen on following SNP policy.

The final row came when Isobel McCallum suggested that the SNP's Pauline Munro wasn't the best possible representative of Highland agricultural interests in Europe. The SNP felt that this wasn't a polite way for their Coalition partners to talk about their Deputy Leader. They wanted McCallum out of the picture. The Independents decided to make her their Group Leader. That was that.

So what went wrong? Well, remember that before 2007, there wasn't really an administration in the sense of the word that most political followers south of the Highlands would understand. Committees and consensus were the order of the day, with most Councillors being independent, the idea of there being an administration and opposition, of fixed, disciplined political groups wasn't really valid. But in May 2007, the Independents lost their majority and there were now only 35 out of 80.

So the Independents started talking, and did a deal with the SNP, forming a Coalition that would run the show. Thing was, this wasn't how they did things. An administration requires a cohesive group, and an element of party discipline. This is the exact opposite of 'Independent'. So a Coalition administration, which is what the Highland Councillors were attempting, was always going to struggle. Either the Independents had to be less independent, or they had to stick to the old system and find a way to allow party politics into it. Neither was going to work very well. (Though, having said that, in 2007 Independents lost their majority in Argyll & Bute and Moray, and formed administrations which haven't yet collapsed - so are they vulnerable to or is this just a Highland thing? Time will tell.)

But to expect an organised political group of any party hue to let them behave like a rag-tag band of individuals is far too much to ask. The Independents weren't a group and didn't work out positions as a group - hence the SNP exasperation.

Having said that, were SNP expectations too high? Did SNP Councillors not suspect that turning a group of independent thinkers into a disciplined political fraction ready to support their administration through thick and thin was not going to be easy? Did it not occur to someone in the group that Independents are called that for a reason?

No, I think both sides didn't get the task. The Independents weren't ready for a modern, partisan administration, yet wanted to retain control so went with a formula they weren't familiar with. Conversely, the SNP assumed that a group of Independent Councillors could act like a group of SNP Councillors, or Labour Councillors, or LibDem Councillors, or Tory Councillors. Realism on both sides somehow went out the window.

So where does the Council go now?

There are 34 Indies, 21 LibDems, 17 SNP Councillors, 7 Labour and one non-aligned member, so as things stand, it's a minority Independent administration. They could always stick with this, and make deals with parties on an issue-by-issue basis: a deal with any one party could carry them over the line and get their policy through. But they'd have to act as a group, something which just isn't happening now.

They could attempt to form another Coalition, with one of the other parties. But again, the group discipline issue comes up, and why would either the LibDems or Labour want to touch them with a ten-foot pole knowing what they'll be up against? And why would they want to take part in administration which is already committed to a four-year policy slate which involves a rival party's policies and not theirs?

They could try to ditch the administration altogether, and go back to the old ways. But how do they deal with the fact that partisanship is the way of the majority of Councillors? When you're used to consensus based on free-thinking, how do you fit three organised groups with a planned set of policies and a central structure into that?

Or the LibDems, SNP and Labour could get together, and oust the Independents. But the four-year policies are still in place. And you have to get the three parties working together until 2011, so what happens when the Westminster election comes about, and a LibDem Council Leader stands alongside LibDem MP for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey, while he's attacking SNP Council Group Leader John Finnie, the Party's candidate for that seat? And besides, as I argued in a previous post, with LibDems taking flak in Aberdeenshire, Aberdeen City and Edinburgh, why would any group, other than the SNP in Aberdeen and Edinburgh, and the Aberdeenshire Tories (they're tied in to agreements), want to support LibDem Councillors right now?

So there are four possible outcomes off the top of my head. And none of them work.


boxthejack said...

I think you're being a little unfair on the LDs in local government up here. Certainly Aberdeenshire Council has just had a resounding write up in the Best Value Audit (yawn!) and it's generally felt that the SNP-LDs in the City have failed only in so much as they didn't arrest structural overspending from previous LD-Con and Lab administrations.

(I rather think the SNP's local government concordat has achieved something by forcing councils to identify suspicious bulges in their carpets - Aberdeen, Renfrewshire, Glasgow for example.)

As for Highland Council, it would not be surprising if the LD and Independents formed some sort of pact, even if it is short of forming an administration. LD councillors up here seem to act with a little more independence than those in other parties.

But Highland Council is not the most predictable of beasts.

CyberNat said...

She's gone and done it again!

Anonymous said...

Professor Richard Wyn Jones, Director of the Institute of Welsh Politics at the Department of International Politics, Aberystwyth University. has written a letter to David Cameron

Ted Harvey said...

I have to admit that I was left, let's just say, bemused after doing some seminar business in Inverness last year.
I several times found myself involved in discussions in which some of the 'independent' councillors were engaged. I couldn't fathom out what kind of creature they are. Their politics were mostly non-existant or of a wildly exotic hue... most seemed to see themselves as quasi local authority workers i.e. more keen on the hands-on operational details than the broader strategic plan or direction.
I also had the impression that the (oft despised) Scottish Executive-now-Government quango professionals were doing a lot to keep the wheels going smoothly... indeed I think that Communities Scotland will be a loss in that region.

All in all I was left sitting on the way back to Glasgow on the lamentable train service wondering away the hours trying to make sense of it all.

Maybe a case of "it's politics Will, but not as we know it"

Will said...

BTJ, Aberdeenshire have had the good report but also managed to tear themselves apart over Trump. Also, Kate Dean seems to have taken most of the flack over Aberdeen City Council's financial woes (pretty deservedly IMO as she's been Leader for five years), and the LibDems on Edinburgh Council seem to be having a rough time of it, with Jenny Dawe's 'hoi polloi' gaffe and Marilyne MacLaren's, well, presence. Since 2007, it's just seemed that whenever there's a Council in political difficulty, there's a LibDem group involved, and I don't understand what's gone wrong for them.

CyberNat, I've given up on Wendy Alexander. There'll be a row, but it'll blow over and she'll still be there. I'm beginning to think that she's the Terminator.

Ordo, interesting letter, but if Cameron pays the slightest bit of attention to it I'll parade around Cardiff in a wedding dress.

Ted, I've never had direct experience of Highland Independent Councillors and from your tale it's clear that I should count myself lucky. Sounds a little like student politics when I was on the Edinburgh Uni SRC. Most of the members were politically active but as soon as the meetings started, affiliations went right out the window: you'd have the SSP member voting with Tories, the Labour members split down the middle and the LibDems just sitting there telling dirty jokes. Even when groupings did emerge, they owed more to personalities than actual political alignment. Was that anything like what you saw when you dealt with them (apart from the dirty jokes)?

Ted Harvey said...

Will, michty me... there were nerr as much as a hint of dirty jokes!

But, now that you mentioned it, there was the steady ambience of a genteel and clipped version of the chaos of the student politics. Very definately, personality was the driver. This was instanced later after the formal business and in the pub (they were gae generous mind in there mind). I was a little taken aback to find two instances of where a couple of more councillors were supposed to have worked in concert on something, but during the action their psotions and decisions came asunder at the slightest discussion.

I definately have still warm, but bemused, memories of it all... but I cannea think that they're aboot tae take ower the whole of the EU :)

Will said...

Well, Ted, I suspected the dirty jokes wouldn't have featured, but the attempts at concerted action struck a chord. The only people who were properly organised were the two Law students, whose basic plan of action was to leave at 8:00, regardless of where things were at. They then changed the plan and took a bottle of wine in with them. Those two were fun.

Maybe the Highland Councillors should take over the EU. It might be a breath of fresh air after Lisbon... :)

Bernard Salmon said...

Well, it now seems that provisional agreement has been reached for an Ind/Lib Dem/Lab coalition, but I have to say that I can't really see this working any better than the Ind/SNP coalition, given the indiscipline of the Indies.
Oh, and an SNP councillor I was speaking to last night seemed very happy about the situation.

Will said...

It does look like that's the outcome. Two parties and a group of Independents? That could be less stable than the last Coalition.

And your SNP Councillor's reaction suggests that something is lurking - no politician is ever to be happy in Opposition unless they know that 1) something is coming up, and 2) they don't want to be anywhere near it.