2007 - 2020

The SNP and the Lobbying Business

THIS week came news that the FM’s former Spad (special advisor) Stewart Maxwell has left the Scottish Government to become the Policy and Public Affairs Manager at CalMac Ferries – which is also owned by the Scottish Government through a labyrinth of holding companies. Why take a demotion from government to do PR for a ferry operator?
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CalMac is at the centre of a row with Clyde-based shipbuilder Ferguson Marine over the latter’s contract to supply the ferry company with two new hi-tech vessels powered by liquid gas.  Ferguson won the £97m contract back in 2015. Unfortunately, construction fell behind schedule while the final bill for the ferries rocketed to an absurd £200m.  As a result, Ferguson collapsed last year, with debts of £49m to the Scottish Government, and was taken into public ownership itself.  What went wrong?
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It soon emerged that CalMac, the publicly owned ferry operator, had had very little to do with the contract, which had been placed by CMAL, another of the chain of front companies that leads to the Scottish Government. CMAL is the actual legal owner of the vessels that CalMac Ferries operates.  It seems that the boys at CMAL didn’t talk to the guys at CalMac and that CalMac did not even want the complicated new boats that Ferguson were building.  Meantime, CMAL kept changing the specs for the new ships, driving the Ferguson engineers bonkers, and driving up the price. The inference in all this being that somebody inside the Scottish Government was pushing the agenda for a new gas-powered ship technology and was using CalMac as the guinea pig.
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Which may explain the arrival of Stewart Maxwell. His updated Linkedin entry actually has him working for David MacBrayne Ltd which is the overall holding company for CMAL and CalMac Ferries.  Which suggests he has been recruited to give the whole kit and caboodle a public relations makeover.  I wish him luck.  Stewart, of course, was a veteran SNP MSP from 2003 to 2016, when he lost his seat. At which point – in the revolving door between public office, special advisors and external PR work – he was rescued to become a paid Spad.
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THE SNP’S PR ARMY
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The interesting thing about Stewart Maxwell’s career is that it exemplifies the “influence” conveyor belt between the SNP leadership and the business community via a legion of former party special advisors, elected members and staffers who have gone on to work in the public relations business.  Of course, working for private PR and “communications” agencies is an interchangeable career move for the modern political class everywhere.  However, for a tiny political party which does not even command office in a nation state, the SNP has been able to create organic links to the UK and global PR industry of an extraordinary nature.
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Party insiders have always defended this development as being useful in offsetting media attacks through insider activity with the business community.  It is noteworthy that the former SNP cadre who go into public relations and communications still retain their support for the SNP and maintain close links with the party.  Also, many switch back and forth between the SNP and private work.  Probably no other UK party apart from the Tories maintains such close links with the PR industry as the SNP.  It is the party’s secret weapon.
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Consider some of the key SNP supporters active inside the communications sector:
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ANDREW WILSON
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Top of the list is brainy, super articulate Andrew Wilson of Charlotte Street Partners, the “strategic communications” machine funded by Angus Grossart.  After losing his Holyrood seat in 2003, Andrew became Deputy Chief Economist with RBS before switching to become the bank’s Head of Group Communications.  In this post, he fronted the RBS defence during the 2008 crash which brough the bank down. Today, Charlotte Street Partners specialises in representing financial clients.  Wilson famously chaired the SNP’s Growth Commission and wrote its final report, which advocated keeping the pound sterling for as long as possible after independence.  Wilson is a trusted confident of both the FM and Angus Robertson, the party’s chief strategist and pollster.
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GEOFF ABERDEIN
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One of the least known of the SNP cadre inside the communications world is the cocky, talkative Geoff Aberdein.  He is currently global head of Public Affairs, Policy & Campaigns at Aberdeen Standard Investment, the UK’s largest listed fund manager.  Mr Aberdein is also Alex Salmond’s former Chief of Staff and remains a close advisor and friend – putting on the wrong side of the party leadership. Aberdein acted as go-between for Sturgeon and Salmond when the rape allegations against the latter first surfaced, which means he is likely to feature in any investigations.  Aberdein is SNP through and through, having started as a government special advisor after the election victory of 2007.  He joined Salmon’s inner office in 2011 and was there till the referendum.  His rapid rise through first Aberdeen Asset Management and then the merged Aberdeen Standard is truly meteoric.  However, his professional position may be compromised by his involvement with the Salmond case.
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KEVIN PRINGLE
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Kevin Pringle is the very opposite of the Mad Men image of the PR professional.  He his quiet, cerebral and very likeable. He was the real brains behind the SNP’s successful public messaging during the long Salmond era.  It was Kevin Pringle who transformed the public image of the modern SNP from cultural headbangers into a sensible, centrist, social democratic offering.  The effort exhausted Pringle and in 2004 he quit politics when Salmond resigned as SNP leader.  Kevin took his undoubted communications skills into private industry, becoming coms director for Centrica’s Scottish Gas business.  This formed a useful two-way channel between one of the biggest energy companies and the SNP universe.  However, Pringle was called back to the colours when Salmon returned to the SNP leadership.  He reprised his role as SNP spin doctor helping the party come to government for the first time, in 2007.  Currently, Pringle has found a berth in Charlotte Street Partners.
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LUKE SKIPPER
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An amiable Canadian, Luke Skipper is another SNP insider who rarely breaks cover but who has played a pivotal role in the party’s recent success. Skipper is currently Head of Public Affairs with Weber Shandwick, a global America public relations conglomerate – which makes him very important.  For “public affairs” in this context, read lobbyist. Not that there’s anything sleazy about Skipper, who is full of North American charm and “can do” attitude.  While completing a masters degree in Scotland, Skipper worked as an intern for Fiona Hyslop, then shadow minister for education. In 2005 he moved to Brussels to work as an aid to Alyn Smith MEP. Finally, Skipper became chief of staff to Angus Robertson, running the party’s Westminster operation with amazing efficiency. When the SNP returned 56 MPs in 2015, Skipper decided it was time to make some money and left for Weber Shandwick.  There he is a key linkman between the WS client base and everything at Westminster. Luke also brings SNP MPs to brief City and other business insiders on Parliamentary issues, which (in theory) helps build bridges between the party and big business.
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GRANT THOMS
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A career lobbyist, Grant Thoms is a well kent face in the SNP.  He currently edits the Scots Independent, the party’s de facto official paper.  Grant has stood many times as an SNP candidate but sadly been unlucky. Thoms is also a former Head of Policy and Strategy with Ingeus, a US-owned, Australian headquartered, global employment services agency. In Scotland, Ingeus managed the Tory Government’s infamous (and woefully unsuccessful) “Work Programme” that dragooned the long-term sick and disabled unemployed into cold calling companies for hours on end, or face DWP sanctions.  In 2016, it emerged that Ingeus was represented on the SNP Government’s official advisory board on future welfare policy, i.e. a profit-seeking, private company was telling the SNP Government how to design its welfare system.  Grant is now a director of The Place Store, the political lobbying arm of a property development company called PMW Capital Investments. The Place Store handles planning applications which may explain its mixed political affiliations: aside from Thoms, other directors include Owen Thompson MP; former Edinburgh Lib Dem councillor Paul Edie; and disgraced Glasgow Council Labour leader Steven Purcell.  Some might consider such a political amalgam to be potentially accident prone.
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ALEX ORR
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Energetic Alex Orr is the brains behind Orbit Communications, which claims to provide “integrated PR, public affairs, digital and design services” to business in Scotland.  Orr is an SNP veteran since running the media campaign for Scotland Forward in the 1997 devolution referendum.  He stood unsuccessfully for the SNP in the 2003, 2007 and 2011 Holyrood elections, and has been a member of the party’s NEC.  Orr’s failure to get elected is a great pity because he is both bright and nobody’s lackey. Instead, Orr has become a demon letter writer, firing off intelligent missives on political matters to Scotland’s diminishing newspaper circulation.  Meantime, Orbit Communications has made a forte of handling planning applications on behalf of developers.  In my experience, Orbit is highly ethical in these dealings.  But the worry has to be that there are obvious potential conflicts of interest in the SNP’s senior activists (or those from any other party) taking paid work with developers to lobby in what is a very small country, with a very small political establishment.
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PAUL TOGNERI
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Togneri is the Scottish end of the British Beer & Pub Association, which represents the interests of 20,000 UK pubs and brewers who provide 90% of the beer brewed in Britain.  His key job is “relationship management with Scottish political contacts”, which sums it up nicely.  But Togneri is also a former SNP Press Officer and Spad.  At least he knows who to contact.
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CONCLUSION
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I could go on, but you get the general drift. For the record, I myself was involved briefly with friends in a small economic consultancy, advertising and coms firm during the 1990s – before I joined the SNP.  I had romantic notions of helping communities to defend themselves against Big Brother and we did some good pro bono work fighting pirate developers and attempts to run electricity pylons across virgin countryside.  But I quit after realising that defending corporate interests for cash is soul-destroying, undemocratic, politically dangerous and downright unethical.  Later, my five minutes at Westminster showed me that the Palace of Westminster is just one giant influence machine infiltrated and dominated by corporate lobbyists like Weber Shandwick.  Supposedly independent All Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs) at Westminster are routinely funded by corporate interests.
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And the conclusion?  The SNP-lobbying nexus does not work in the indy movement’s favour.  As the 2014 referendum proved, it does not make business or the banks any more favourable to independence. Instead, the links between ex-Spads or elected members and current ministers gives business the upper hand.  And it is driving the SNP Government rightwards in matters economic.  We need much tougher regulation of lobbying firms.  All forms of corporate lobby meetings and sponsored meals inside Holyrood or the Palace of Westminster should be outlawed.  Former elected members or staffers should be prohibited from joining (or creating) lobbying firms for at least five years after demitting office.
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Unfortunately, should any elected member raise such outlandish ideas, there will be a host of PR folk with time-served SNP credentials picking up the phone to the party leadership.  Plus they have the direct dial numbers and personal email addresses in their little black books.

Comments (13)

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  1. Jim Ferguson says:

    Erudite!

  2. Douglas Wilson says:

    Old ‘crazy horse’ Kerevan rides again… thanks for the insight, George.
    It’s most appreciated to get the gen on the movers and shakers of Scottish Independence PLC…
    Are the TV serialisation rights still available? (Opening credits to roll over a shot of sleepy constituency party office, in the outpost of Banff, Scotland…)
    Does Bella Caledonia still maintain that we don’t need an additional, grassroots political party?
    Seriously?
    The SNP are just wasting our time…
    Sorry, I no longer believe these people, it’s as simple as that.
    Still a few months left to pack a case and flee Scotland before the Brexit drawbridge pulls up and maroons the rest on an island crammed with nuclear weapons, and run by a cabal of extreme right-wing liars, lunatics and racists running wild through the British Constitutional order with a sledge-hammer…
    .
    By the way, you know when a political party commits to a second referendum when there are “material change of circumstances” and that material change takes place, and then there isn’t a referendum of any sort or kind? That is called betraying your mandate. Or maybe just lying. And that is precisely what the SNP have done. Twice.

    1. Douglas Wilson says:

      PS: A relatively small group of people making large amounts of money from the hopes and aspirations of about half the country is what this sounds like to me. What a bunch of suckers we Scots are…

  3. Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh says:

    Hi George. Thanks for the article. I always appreciate your thoughtful and informative writings. Yet your following sentence perplexed me somewhat:

    “It was Kevin Pringle who transformed the public image of the modern SNP from cultural headbangers into a sensible, centrist, social democratic offering.” 

    I guess I myself must admit to being a committed life-long “cultural headbanger”. Of course I am no doubt missing a tongue-in-cheek nuance here, since I can’t imagine you yourself being aridly and aspirationally “a-cultural”.

    When I first read Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ in my teens, the following passage left an indelible “cultural” imprint on me (so I quote it whenever the opportunity arises) —

    “The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought – that is, a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc – should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words.” (George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Harmondsworth, 1968, pp. 241-2.)

    Happily you now also provide an opportune context to publically and heartily welcome Angus Peter Campbell’s forthcoming Gaelic translation of ‘Animal Farm’ —

    https://tinyurl.com/yxlmlrps

    My regards.

  4. John Cawley says:

    Marco Biagi is a former SNP minister, currently employed by Message Matters, so Edinburgh Central can actually elect a lobbyist and take democracy right out of the process all together. Twenty years after Lobbygate and the revolving door spins faster and faster. I wish Bella had the resources to pursue this self-perpetuating establishment. Scotland is a perfect illustration of the corporate capture of liberal democracy. I have written about precisely this issue repeatedly on Bella. Marco Biagi -Message Matters/ Andrew Wilson and Kevin Pringle – CSP and Murdoch’s Times. Biagi is best buds with Tom Brexit Harris and Peter Dark Money Duncan and wee Andy Maciver. All merrily divvying up Scottish public money for their corporate clients. Tom can be pro EU until Vote Leave wave some readies in the same way he opposed HS2′ until they threw him some dough his way. Andy, Peter and Tom all have their regular gigs on a BBC Scotland that effectively operates as an arm of the lobbying industry every weekend. Let’s have a quick shout out to Moray MacDonald of WeberShandwick and the bold Jim Murphy of Arden Communications. All of them, every one a walking, talking, grifting indictment of a Scotland that has simply lost its way.
    It doesn’t matter if they are SNP, Labour, Tory or Lib Dem, these corporate greasers represent their paymasters – the electorate or the public or the people – we get to vote every few years, but the real action happens when the grifters meet the ministers or their Spads to grease the ongoing division of the spoils over a nice lunch.
    I’m a democratic socialist who believes in an independent Scotland, but Holyrood needs to chase these chancers from the democratic temple. The last straw for me was Sir Angus Grossburger’s Two Rivers Media producing BBC Scotland’s flagship programme celebrating twenty years of devolved government in Scotland, Children of the Devolution. Scottish democracy has been stolen from under our noses by a bunch of second-rate grifters puffed up by a supine establishment with barely a peep from our laughable so-called Fourth Estate.

  5. Douglas Wilson says:

    Well said, Fearghas, the “cultural headbangers” would be the writers, artists and poets who actually founded the SNP in the first place back in their day…

    The wider question: is democracy even possible these days? Is it not all over? Did it not come to an end decades ago and we are all just kidding ourselves on? The democratic system in Western Europe has been almost totally captured by the corporate world. How long before we get full blown Fascism? Not long I would say.

    Sturgeon, Murrell, Robertson, Smyth, Wishart, et al are a bunch of out and out careerists with an absolute eye for the main chance. Nicola is sweetness and light? I don’t think so. It’s not so much a dog-eat-dog corporate world these people inhabit, as a viper-eat-viper environment.

    How are we meant to believe in these people even remotely? The kids of Craigmillar – one at least with missing front teeth because he couldn’t pay a dentist – out canvassing for RIC in the weeks leading up to the 18/9/14 and Salmond cracking open the Japanese whisky with the Edinburgh chaterratti in his boozy Bute House nights? A man in his sixties, supposedly a leader, in the weeks leading up to the biggest day of his professional career?

    All my money is on the Salmond affair being a major tiff among the careerist, ruthless upper cadre of the SNP, with only a little substance to it which the SNP, blind to their own shamelessness, are visiting on all of us because they think we care (I don’t, not remotely, though I saw the Scot Gov is refusing to hand over evidence to enquiry)

    When did democracy in Britain come to an end? When Thatcher beat the miners and overturned the post-war settlement? When Blair – or was it Kinnock – abolished Clause 4? When the Berlin Wall came down and the total failure of the alternative project in the east facilitated the demise too – inevitably – of a social democratic model?

    The only hope is that young people come together and organize, not into a political party, but a movement for change. Sit-ins and lock-outs and interrupting the SNP party conference. Disruptance and disturbance. That kind of thing….

    In any case, one thing is crystal clear: no one can trust the SNP. Your vote, or part of your vote, goes to feathering someone’s nest in the corporate world…

  6. Josef Ó Luain says:

    You can only try to alert people to the facts, George. Anyone speaking uncritically of the way in which the S.N.P. is conducting its internal affairs these days has, in my estimation, been duped. It doesn’t please me to have reached this position, but the evidence of recent times leaves me with no other rational option.

  7. Doug says:

    “However, for a tiny political party which does not even command office in a nation state, the SNP has been able to create organic links to the UK and global PR industry of an extraordinary nature.”

    Jealous much, George? That’s a very odd description for the political party running Scotland. It’s also entirely dismissive of the reality that individuals who operate in a political context, building relationships with key players, who are also recognised as smart, competent, and well-connected, will have a huge head start in any recruitment process. They weren’t SPADS because they were idiots.

    The reality is that there needs to be an ethical framework to ensure that political influence doesn’t equate to personal profit. I would suggest that so far, in a comparison of political parties and outcomes, such as membership of the HoL, that framework looks to have worked pretty well in the SNP. Who would you like to compare it with, George?

    And more importantly, what controls do you think should be in place? For example a SPAD from defence aerospace shouldn’t be able to work in aerospace. Or an agricultural ministers adviser farm dairy cattle?

    1. Douglas Wilson says:

      The question is surely, are SPADS compatible with democratic transparency? The answer is surely, NO.

      For example: the SNP run for office with a commitment to abolish the unfair Community Charge and replace it with an alternative, and more equitable model for funding local services. They win the election and mysteriously renege on their manifesto. Why exactly? We don’t know. Nobody bothers to tell us.

      But if the alternative model for financing local services was a land tax, as people like Andy Wightman have argued it should be, then that could have been opposed by a SPAD with links, say, just to make a wild guess, the factor-in-chief Benny Higgins, he of the Duke of Buccleuch’s vast estates. The biggest private land owner in Scotland who obtained a large part of his land when his ancestor back at the time of James II (15th century ) supported the Scottish King in his brutal war against the powerful Douglas family, including the brutal murder of the two boys of that family who were invited over for dinner only to be murdered in what became known as “the black dinner”….This is the pedigree of the Scottish aristocracy who continue to call the shots in the land.

      Higgins being tasked with finding out how to restart the economy after C19 confirms that a) the SNP are in the pocket of very powerful vested interests and b) they don’t care if we know it, they have nothing but contempt for us, the voters, so what if we know that they are in the pocket of big business? We’re not at the table, so we are irrelevant or at best a minor nuisance. I mean, the land issue is a very sensitive issue for a lot of people in Scotland given the Highland Clearances and all that entailed, and yet the National Party pours contempt on that sensibility altogether. To appoint the Duke’s man is an outright provocation in my view.

      All of this in a country, a) without anything resembling an articulate or coherent political opposition to hold the govt to account at Holyrood and b) one where the press has dwindled to almost an irrelevance, and in any case is dwarfed by the BBC who have sucked the life – and the finance – out of a plural and vibrant media sector to the point of asphyxia. The BBC is not Pravda, but it is pretty close to Pravda in terms of its news monopoly and resources, and that it is given millions of tax payers money, exclusively, over all other media outlets each year, is a democratic travesty and cannot be justified at all.

      The SNP govt are looking increasingly like a Scottish version of “Peronismo”, with an increasingly authoritarian, top down party apparatus which punishes people who speak out, sprinkled with some vaguely lefty populist policies (no prescription charges, uni tuition etc) and with our very own “Evita Perón”, Nicola, the working class girl made good, who woos the crowds and wins over the doubters with her authentic Scots manner…

      1. John Cawley says:

        Apologies, Douglas, my reply was to Doug. I’m with you regarding the corporate capture of the SNP. Mobile phones combined with dodgy eyesight are not conducive to debate.

        1. Douglas Wilson says:

          No worries, John, I had worked it out from your post, and in any case, we agree…
          …the Scottish Parliament is one of the most expensive and fancily designed knocking shops in modern times, a place where backs are scratched and egos are massaged and favours are offered, exchanged and returned.
          Our elected MSPs are just the outer layer of the system; the inner layer are the SPAD’s and the lobbyists whose activities in the shadows probably account for a lot of things which happen which remain opaque to the public.
          Effectively, the inner circle function as a kind of trip-wire to any meaningful change in the country, subverting the will for change in Scottish society.
          Or you might consider them the Praetorian guard of the status quo.
          Finally, does anybody really think that President Macrón or France or Germany’s PM Angela Merkel call the steward of the most powerful aristocrat in France / Germany when it comes to ideas for rebooting their post-Covid economies?
          No, they don’t, because they don’t have aristocrats in France and Germany, they got rid of them centuries ago…
          In Scotland, we continue to be trapped in a feudal past which most of the rest of Europe got rid of centuries ago.
          We’re stuck in the pages of an infernal Walter Scott novel, and the SNP are not interested in changing it.
          I’m very disappointed in Nicola Sturgeon, because Nicola knows all this, she knows better…
          What is she playing at?

    2. John Cawley says:

      Why the defensive, sarcastic tone? My criticism was that Mr Kerevan did not go far enough in his analysis. The fact is though that he did try to initiate a debate. It’s not a debate we’ll get in the mainstream media, is it? And to ascribe his piece to jealousy is like the nonsense people put below the line in The Herald. Bella is there for debate. Mr Kerevan has identified a genuine issue and it has moved you to respond, but get beyond the ‘jealous much’ stuff and mount a genuine argument against his argument or should we continue to be quiet for the sake of the bigger pi?

      1. John Cawley says:

        Picture!

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