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25 August 2023

Can Murray Foote save the SNP?

The new party chief executive has to deal with a police investigation, falling income and electoral slide.

By Chris Deerin

Murray Foote is, in my experience, a good man to have on your side. When I was a young, out-of-my-depth political editor at the Daily Record, lacking both the aptitude for and much interest in digging up exclusives, he was an understanding and constructive news editor. When we played five-a-side football, it was always preferable to be in his team – opponents would bounce off his solid Dundonian frame, plus he had a left foot like a bolt gun.

Over the years, Foote held some of the biggest jobs in Scottish journalism, editing both the Daily Record and its sister the Sunday Mail, from which he emerged with his reputation enhanced – no easy feat in an era of falling circulations and angry conspiracies about ulterior motives in the “Yoon” media. During the independence referendum of 2014, he played an important part in devising “the vow”, in which unionist politicians from across the political spectrum united to promise more powers for Holyrood if Scots voted No.

Yes, there is an irony in this last point. Competent, experienced and robust, Foote will need all of these qualities in his new role as chief executive of the SNP. If it was a challenge running newspapers at a time of industry-wide decline and budget cuts, the poisoned quaich he has just been handed represents a different magnitude of test.

It hardly needs repeating that the SNP is in a bit of a state. Foote’s predecessor as chief executive, Peter Murrell, remains under police investigation in relation to his management of the party’s accounts, as does Murrell’s wife, Nicola Sturgeon. Morale at HQ in Edinburgh is said to be low since the police very publicly raided the offices as part of its fraud inquiry, carting off boxes of documents. The imminence of possible charges, which could be laid before the year is out, ensures a fresh start will be difficult to pull off.

Even before the current scandal, there were regular complaints that Murrell had failed to modernise the party’s professional wing to keep pace with the SNP’s extraordinary political success and growth of the past two decades. He preferred a small, loyal team that did what he and Sturgeon wanted, when they wanted it done. Elected representatives often spoke privately of feeling ignored and excluded, but ventured public criticism at their peril. Foote himself resigned as the SNP’s head of communications in March after unintentionally misleading journalists over SNP membership numbers.

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[See also: Scotland has been left with the worst of both worlds]

If Murrell enjoyed electoral and financial years of plenty over his two decades as chief executive, Foote will not have that luxury. It emerged on Thursday that the SNP made a loss of more than £800,000 last year after its income and membership dropped. The party’s membership fell from 104,000 two years ago to 72,000 in March. Its membership income slipped from £2,516,854 in 2021 to £2,286,944 in 2022, while its reportable donations dropped from £695,351 to £368,538.

The glory days do not look like returning any time soon. The independence movement has fractured into competing camps that believe in often mutually incompatible strategies for persuading Scots to leave the UK. There is bad blood everywhere. There are disputes about policy and personnel, and growing unhappiness over the SNP’s governing partnership with the Greens.

Most important of all, the SNP is on the electoral slide. Its long period of dominance, in which the opposition was barely visible in its wing mirror, is coming to an end. It is expected to lose the upcoming Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election to a resurgent Scottish Labour, which polls show might win around half of the SNP’s seats at next year’s general election.

Humza Yousaf has undoubtedly been dealt a bad hand as First Minister, but he has so far failed to make much even of the cards he has. Government insiders are well aware that Yousaf has failed to capture the voters’ imagination, and that his limitations are more obviously visible than his talents.

He has strengths, they argue, including his genuine desire to govern through cabinet teamwork, in contrast to Sturgeon’s tight grip, and his openness to policy ideas. But they acknowledge that the next couple of months are crucial if there is to be any prospect of the rot being stopped. Yousaf’s first Programme for Government comes in September, and must show voters why he wanted to lead and what he wants to achieve with his time in office. Then, at the SNP conference in October, the party will agree its new strategy for securing independence.

Both Foote and Yousaf need the other to be playing at the top of their game. One cannot succeed if the other fails, and both have an in-tray so full it would make the most ardent Stakhanovite wince. They may well prove to be tail-end Charlies facing an impossible task, and be remembered mainly for ushering the once all-powerful SNP back into opposition, as the dream of independence disappears over the horizon.

The alternative is that they pull off an unlikely comeback, arrest the party’s fall in the polls and persuade both voters and party that there’s life left in the project, even after 17 years in government. I’m fairly sure I know what my old boss Murray would once have made of their chances.

[See also: When will the SNP put itself before the Greens?]

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