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Way back in the distant past, when I was only a columnist here at ConservativeHome, one of the first missions I undertook for the Editor was trying to find out how many Tory members there were.
At the time the Party was disinclined to publish any official data. Therefore every year this site would dive into the Party’s various accounting units, manually tot up all the declared membership rolls for each, and produce a figure.
Inevitably CCHQ would claim that whatever we got was an underestimate, and eventually they came around to just publishing the total.
I was put in mind of those youthful hours spent trawling PDFs by this week’s extraordinary row over who has the right to know how many members has the Scottish National Party. Because as far as some of the Nationalist higher-ups seem to be concerned, that select group does not include the candidates running to lead it.
Yesterday the campaigns of Kate Forbes and Ash Regan sent a joint letter to Peter Murrell, the SNP’s chief executive (and Nicola Sturgeon’s husband) demanding to know three quite basic pieces of information: how many paid-up members the party has; how many digital ballots have been issued; and how many paper ballots have been posted.
For context, both Regan and Forbes are the outsider candidates in the race: the former the champion of the so-called zoomers, for whom (even more than the average Nat) independence trumps everything; the latter a social conservative who leans right on economics and represents a Highlands seat, well outside Sturgeon’s new Central-Belt fiefdom.
Notably not complaining about this lack of transparency is Humza Yousaf, the man widely seen as the candidate of the current Nationalist hierarchy; his silence will do nothing to alleviate concerns that party headquarters is or was trying to arrange a stitch-up.
Stephen Flynn, the SNP’s Westminster leader, has also spoken out and pledged to end the secrecy; it is probably not a coincidence that his winning that post was seen as an early defeat for Sturgeon’s ailing grip on the party.
Of course, the party has now folded, and the figures are due later today. It will be interesting to see how they compare to the most recent data, from 2021 – might a fall in membership be part of the explanation for the Nationalists’ reluctant to publish?
This seems to highlight a couple of things. First, the fading political instincts of the current leadership; it is remarkable that anybody thought this sort of position would hold once subjected to public scrutiny.
Second, and relatedly, the disconnect between the Nationalists’ internal culture and their new circumstances. Such secrecy is viable when an institution is firmly under the control of an individual or close-knit group; it is much less so in the heat of an open leadership contest.
And heat there is: Regan has said her rivals won’t be able to give their all to the role because they’re parents; she has also vowed to open the party’s books to get to the bottom of the missing £600,000 in donations that are currently the subject of a police probe, claiming that “careers could end”.
(The finance story is another reminder of just how secretive the SNP’s internal culture has been; Yousaf also claims to know nothing about the party’s accounts. Recall that previously, several members of the SNP’s finance committee resigned because Murrell would not let them access the books.)
Meanwhile Patrick Harvie, having promised not to intervene in the race, has now done so in order to attack Forbes, who seems to have managed to power through the early blitz on her religious views which looked like they might sink her campaign. The leader of the Scottish Greens holds the fate of the Scottish Government in his hands, as without his party the Nationalists would have no Holyrood majority.
Forbes’ SNP colleagues have also renewed the attack, with Mairi McAllan, a minister, claiming her answer about rape victims’ access to abortion services “wasn’t clear enough”.
Meanwhile another Nationalist MSP has savaged the Scottish Government’s embattled deposit return scheme as a “transfer of money from poorest to the richest”, which will be music to the ears of those in Westminster thinking about intervening against it to protect the British internal market.
Unionists should be careful not to get complacent. Leadership contests are seldom pretty, but at some point the SNP will have a new leader and they and their party will be as committed as ever to breaking up the United Kingdom.
But the Nationalists have been such a formidably disciplined force for so long that pro-Union observers can be forgiven a little schadenfreude. And whatever the strengths of the candidates, it doesn’t currently seem likely that the lightning which produced Sturgeon and Alex Salmond is about to strike thrice.