Orcadian Column, 23 March 2023

23 Mar 2023

My hope had been to use this column to reflect on another hugely successful Orkney Youth Awards, showcasing the astonishing extent and variety of youth volunteering in our islands. Last Thursday’s awards were a genuine celebration, underlining once more the importance of youth work and the invaluable contribution young people make to our community in so many ways.


I’d also hoped to mention Saturday’s formal opening of the Orkney Men’s Shed at the old herring factory in Stromness, shared with the Historic Boat Society and Stromness Drama Club. Sheds have a proven track record in helping tackle isolation and poor mental health amongst men, so it’s great to see them now sprouting up in the smaller isles and a special thanks is due to local Head Shedder, Morgan Harcus for his tireless leadership.


Sadly, though, there is really no avoiding the subject of the SNP leadership contest that continues to dominate and baffle in equal measure.


A month ago, Nicola Sturgeon was preparing for a special SNP conference due to take place next week which would debate her ill-conceived plan to use the next election as a ‘de facto’ referendum on independence. Since then, we’ve witnessed an implosion to rival that of Liz Truss in terms of the pace at which things have unravelled, if not thankfully the impact on markets, currency and interest rates.


Nicola Sturgeon’s shock announcement was followed by a leadership race characterised early on by candidates ruling themselves out, a decision only vindicated by the opening salvos in the first televised debate and ever since by the increasing rancour between the rival campaign teams and supporters.


Kate Forbes has accused Humza Yousaf of incompetence while the latter has retaliated by questioning Ms Forbes’ ability to command anything like majority support amongst the party’s MSPs. Meanwhile, Ash Regan has been left to think the unthinkable, the undoable and the unfathomable.


Yet the initial omnishambles was only an appetiser. The failure and then refusal of SNP HQ to release party membership figures gave credence to the view that things were being ‘stitched up’ in Mr Yousaf’s favour. It also led to media reports suggesting there had been an exodus of members, something the party, including their head of press at Holyrood, Murray Foote, strenuously denied.


Low and behold, when figures were reluctantly published last week, they revealed a drop of 30,000 in just over two years. Murray Foote immediately fell on his sword, alleging he had been lied to by SNP HQ, all of which made wholly untenable the position of SNP CEO, Peter Murrell. Mr Murrell, married to Nicola Sturgeon, already faced serious questions over financial irregularities within the party.


Under threat of a no confidence motion, Mr Murrell resigned at the weekend to be replaced by party President, Mike Russell, who at least had the self-awareness to acknowledge the ‘tremendous mess’. By contrast, on a cringeworthy appearance on ITV’s Loose Women this week, Nicola Sturgeon insisted the SNP was ‘not in a mess’ and just experiencing ‘growing pains’: an odd way to describe the loss of 30% of members in two years.


This shambles, though, reflects Nicola Sturgeon’s dominance over her party and the complete absence of any succession plan. Her would-be successors look poor substitutes and all have now boxed themselves in by promising to deliver independence within five years. This from a party that cannot even build two ferries in five years, as further delays and cost overruns were announced last week amidst the unfolding chaos of the leadership contest.


In 2007, the SNP came to power talking down the prospects of independence, intent instead on demonstrating competence in government. How things have changed. As Kate Forbes admitted recently, the SNP has stopped listening to the public and spends too much time talking to, and now arguing with itself.


Nicola Sturgeon leaves behind her a deeply divided party, not helped by Ash Regan channelling her inner Trump with calls to ‘stop the steal’. So whoever wins this contest has their work cut out to heal those divisions. As for assembling a new Cabinet, that may be something beyond even the carpentry talents of the folks at Orkney Men’s Shed.