It’s war and there’s no place for loose cannons

Thankfully, Joan McAlpine has been fairly quiet this weekend.  The burd hopes she has spent the time reviewing the events of the last few days and working out what went wrong.  She could do worse than seek out the sage advices of some of her parliamentary colleagues, particularly those who bear the scars of long years spent in the SNP’s trenches and of bruising campaigns past.  More than anyone, the likes of Mike Russell, Nicola Sturgeon and John Swinney, could tell Joan that she ain’t seen nothing yet, that this is only the start of it, that this is how it has always been for the SNP.  One against four (being the three Unionist parties and the mainstream media, of course).

And that this is the reason why the top echelons of the party operate like a tightly drilled unit when battle has been commenced.

By anyone’s standards, Joan McAlpine’s political rise has been meteoric. Two years ago, she was an unknown in the SNP firmament (which is not to say she hasn’t been a longtime supporter). Having decided to pursue a role in active politics, she approached it with the same determination and display of talent which saw her become one of the very few women in Scottish journalism to reach the top of her profession.  She missed out – narrowly – in securing a constituency but thanks to the historic landslide vote in May, got herself elected on the South of Scotland list.

Everyone who encountered her during the election campaign was impressed, including the First Minister, and she quickly established herself in his inner circle, providing media advice and speechwriting skills.  Her touch was plain to see in some of his keynote speeches in the run up to May’s election and her fingerprints were all over his victory speech at Prestonfield House and his earliest First Ministerial speeches before the summer.  In a good way.  Her appointment as his parliamentary liaison officer came as little surprise, with many predicting that a ministerial promotion was inevitable in the future. Some might be revising those predictions this weekend.

For it was her proximity to the First Minister which prompted the media to make such a fuss about Ms McAlpine’s ill-judged and intemperate remarks in the Scottish Parliamentary debate on Scotland’s Future last week.  Joan – of all people – knows that the political journalists in Scotland hunt as a pack.  As soon as they scent blood, they’re off.  Her job as parliamentary liaison officer to the First Minister is to avoid laying trails that carry them anywhere near him.  Indeed, her job is to ensure that she is carrying the right trail at the right time and that if there is trouble afoot, to lay a false trail that carries the scent in the opposite direction.  The master at doing this is Kevin Pringle: he’s another who learned his craft the hard way and knows how tightly the messaging needs to be drawn at times like these.

This clearly isn’t the first time that a careless political remark has squandered political value but this one did so pretty spectacularly.  The “anti-Scottish” jibe was a pointless arrow fired at political opponents unnecessarily.  If it was deliberately aimed then the tactics need to be revised.  All parties need their outriders but they need to be as far removed from the leadership as possible.

It also resulted in the backroom team expending a lot of energy, trying to make it go away.  With over 990 days to go, that energy needs to be conserved for the fights the SNP wants to pick with its opponents, not for these kind of unplanned skirmishes.  The timing of the remark could not have been worse, resulting in the SNP’s second most important person being harried and pursued on BBC Question Time.  Watching it certainly made me wince, not because Nicola Sturgeon couldn’t handle it – her media skills are outstanding – but because she was prevented from doing the job she was there to do, which was get the SNP’s positive message across.  She’s the country’s Deputy First Minister and shouldn’t have to be defending a jibe made by a backbench parliamentary colleague on UK wide television.

The episode also overshadowed an outstanding week for the SNP:  the way it seized the initiative back was like watching a masterclass in political gamesmanship.  The First Minister and his Depute, made all the other parties and senior politicians – not least the UK Prime Minister – look like amateurs.  And they did it by playing the ball, not the player – until Joan’s intervention of course.

In the old days, the SNP was very good at this kind of personality politics but it got the party nowhere in terms of winning elections.  It was only when the SNP switched tack and abandoned negative politicking that they won the hearts and minds of the Scottish people.  This trading of insults is the kind of politics that makes the public switch off and the SNP cannot afford for this to happen, not even for a weekend.  Two years might seem like forever, but there is such a lot of convincing to do, on so many fronts, that every hour is needed.  And every single one of them should be focused on making the positive case for constitutional change, not mopping up after hostile exchanges.

We really haven’t seen anything like the fullscale onslaught the Unionist establishment is capable of and will have to mount, if it is to thwart the SNP’s ambition.  The party knows what to expect and is now much better placed to counter it all, but only if its people hang tightly.  There is no margin for error, not when the main prize is at stake, and there is no room for anyone within the leadership circle who is high risk and high maintenance.

Alex Salmond is renowned for nurturing chicks.  A significant number fledge successfully and choose to stay in the nest; some decide to flee of their own accord.  But he is not afraid to dump those who fail to make the grade or transgress out of his nest.  That’s the problem with meteoric rises – the fall can be just as spectacular.

16 thoughts on “It’s war and there’s no place for loose cannons

  1. Excellent overview Kate, and I hope – Im sure – the upper echelons of the party take note of this timely reminder about the need for composure. By all accounts, it wasn’t the worst crime Ive seen an MSP or MP make, and for the most part looked more like a manufactured scandal that invited a concerted and determined effort by the opposition parties to draw blood. Manufactured is probably underplaying it somewhat as the comments were undoubtedly careless and ill-advised, but there has quite clearly been a significant attempt to mobilise members with faux-outrage to claim a scalp, and all parties and certain elements of the press/media were quite clearly happy to join the baying mob. Compare and contrast this with the low-key or non-existent coverage of Murdo Fraser’s “political racism” comment and Tom Harris’ YouTube efforts (certainly until he was forced to apologise).

    The “Yes” campaign could well do without having to defend comments such as Joan’s. She’s managed to avoid significant damage this time, but we may not be so lucky in future. There will be times when the campaign is going well, and we must resist and restrain those who display arrogance. But there will also be times when the campaign is flagging, and we must avoid reactionary and retaliatory tactics that could suck the last breaths from a difficult campaign. Language and partisanship has the ability to do damage at any point in the campaign and we should be minimising our part in polarising opinion.

    Every single supporter of independence should remember that we will need to persuade those who oppose us right until the end if we are to deliver a resounding vote for Scotland’s future. And we wont do that by labelling them.

  2. Fairest article to date from anyone since the proverbial foot went into the mouth.

    People need to remember that the Tories and Labour are masters of spin, if not political competence. (The LIb Dems just spin in circles!)

  3. Thanks for this I agree with you, undoubtedly the SNP deal well in the main with the media but as you say they are under ever increasing scrutiny. And the mainly anti SNP mainstream media will jump on anything to talk them down. I know many agree with the basic sentiment outlined in explanation by Ms McAlpine but surely the point was to say anti-democratic? Many people in Scotland are unsure of the facts and the less diversions from the facts of the situation the better.

  4. For those who don’t understand what the Unionists are capable of just consider why this erupted on the very day that Nicola was going on Question Time.

    It was no co-incidence and the only reason we got away with it, other than Nicola’s excellence of course, was wee Dougie being unable to overcome his prediliction to Nat-bashing and Dimbleby’s shameful chairmanship which gave the whole programme all the jollity of a witch hunt.

    All our words are potential hostages to fortune, especially ones which can so easily be quoted out of context.

    One of the reasons why we must ensure we fight on ground of our choosing is defensive. It is much more difficult for enemy traps to be laid there.

    • Which is why the Scottish Government’s seizing back of the initiative on the timing of the referendum was inspired. The key point is that Joan set this in train, first with the tweets then with the intervention. And while it amounts to little more than a spat in a teacup, these are the sort of debilitating skirmishes that need to be avoided. The anti-independence parties will pounce on every utterance, aided and abetted by the mainstream media. It was always thus.

  5. Good article. Let’s hope we learn the lesson that you have to be ‘like Caesar’s wife’. Sadly we are not going to get a level playing field!
    However the point was correct – just badly made? The Labour party in particular are hugely vulnerable on this point- from Ian Davidson’s “who cares” comment, to the disgraceful general attacks on the SNP in Westminster to Milliband signing up with Cameron on the referendum.

  6. Let’s unravel the facts then. Joan first levelled the anti-Scottish charge on Twitter on Wednesday night. In Holyrood on Thursday, Ruth Davidson raised it as an issue during her speech and accepted Joan’s intervention where she refused to apologise (rightly so in my opinion). Davidson has been going on about this for months: http://www.ruthdavidson.co.uk/2011/10/26/ruth-lets-proclaim-partnership-union/ Drama queen Douglas Alexander over-played it during his Question Time performance and Anas Sarwar and Humza Yousaf were then thrown against each other in a set-piece on Radio Scotland’s Call Kaye on Friday morning, The SNP’s ultra-sensitivity on the matter was laid bare when Humza said they were not the words he would have used. The whole thing was a blatant attempt to portray the SNP as ethnic instead of civic nationalists. It might be an issue for the McChattering classes on the likes of Better Nation to get their knickers in a twist over but back on planet earth most people are too busy bursting their arse trying to make ends meet for this nonsense.

    I’m not an SNP member or a Joan McAlpine fan but I welcome her candour in this instance. If we really are this squeamish then we might as well all pack up and go home now.

    • And that is exactly the point – there is nothing more likely to turn the public off the referendum debate if they feel they are on the outside spectating while the parties knock lumps out of each other. What will then happen is that the stay at homes win, and that is the worst of all possible results. These spats do matter – look at how much energy was involved in trying to shut it down, and the difficult position not only the Depute FM was put in, but also another FM parliamentary liaison officer. That involves huge amounts of time and resources behind the scenes as well, time and resources that could be better spent.

  7. Sorry, Burd.
    Don’t agree at all.
    Joan’s remarks, which are being deliberately misinterpreted, have not registered badly in anyway with hoi polloi – if they have actually registered at all.
    Certainly not worth this over- reaction.

    • I think they are being partially misinterpreted. My point is that this is all so unnecessary. We need to engage people, not encourage them to switch off. They probably haven’t registered with many, but shutting down this kind of discourse early in proceedings will ensure we are not treated to a drip drip effect of all the anti-independence parties ganging up to exploit statements that can be misinterpreted. This isn’t over-reaction, it is an early warning of what will come, and what needs to be thought about to avoid it. I was involved in the 99 Scottish Parliamentary election campaign when no one could get off the backfoot long enough to get the positive message across. Everyone was exhausted and drained by it, and it had a major impact on the campaign. It’s easy to think that won’t happen again and be complacent about the dangers of stirring up unnecessary fights.

  8. In 2010, Cathy Jamieson said: “The Tories’ mask has slipped. They have an anti-Scottish agenda and they simply can’t be trusted to treat Scotland fairly.” http://www.scottishlabour.org.uk/anti-scottish-tories-cant-be-trusted

    Joan said: “I make absolutely no apology for saying that the Liberals, the Labour Party and the Tories are anti-Scottish in coming together to defy the will of the Scottish people and the democratic mandate that they gave us to hold a referendum at a time of our choosing.”

    I wholeheartedly agree with every word Joan said. She was subjected to a pre-determined ambush and the media couldn’t run with it quick enough. Nicola Sturgeon’s treatment on Question Time was disgraceful yet again. Dimbleby is clearly unfit to host the programme, which is a mere shadow of what it once was. Douglas Alexander’s persistent hectoring was negatively received by the audience, who were understandably surprised and confused by it. If it hadn’t been this it would’ve been something else. Independence has been the clear winner this week and the British nationalists are absolutely bealing. Good.

    • Joan was not ambushed – these were the words she scripted for a speech she asked to make – you have to put your name forward for these debates in order to be chosen to speak – without any prompting from anyone else. Wrong choice of words, entirely her doing. One would expect a former senior journalist to know better and to have known their potential impact with opposition politicians and the media. And if she didn’t that’s worse.

      Agree with you on your comments about Question Time. Nicola handled it well but she should not have been put in that position by a member of her own parliamentary team.

  9. OK, here’s a truth, and I am gutted to reveal it, that’s the first political blog I haven’t sped read. There, I said it, and I am sorry.

  10. “We really haven’t seen anything like the fullscale onslaught the Unionist establishment is capable of and will have to mount” – perhaps not, but we’ve seen something pretty close, Remember the anti-AV campaign? They even admitted, afterwards, to having consciously lied outright, but it was all swept under the carpet. That’s the kind of thing we can expect from Westminster and it won’t be good for anyone in Scotland, no matter what ‘side’ they’re on. The important thing at this stage must be to make sure the public anticipate and are wise to it.

    • Jennie, AV doesn’t even come close. Trust me. The only potential comparator we have to what is coming is 1999. And you’re right it won’t be good for Scotland, and I do think the public are wise to it now.

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