Chris Deerin: The SNP is like a business that's grown too fast and hired the wrong staff

The trouble with the SNP's new intake, keeping our company cool and why PR is alive and kicking.

by Chris Deerin
Last Updated: 22 Feb 2016

You know what it's like: you've been plugging away with your own small business for yonks, in largely fruitless fashion. You make a funny little widget for which there has never been much consumer appetite. You've tweaked it over the years in an attempt to widen its appeal, but with little success. Still, you refuse to admit defeat - you believe passionately in your widget.

Then, one day, it takes off. Someone cool raves about it on Twitter and suddenly everyone wants one - indeed, people become fanatically obsessed. To keep up with demand you're forced to hire dozens of new staff - in an instant you go from six people to 56. You can't believe your luck: you're rich, famous and popular. But at the same time something niggles: the culture of the company has changed; you can't keep on top of things like you did in the old days; and these new staff members that you were forced to hire at speed... well, frankly, some of them are proving a little odd; others a bit uppity.

This, with a dash of poetic licence, is the story of the Scottish National Party. An outfit that until relatively recently comprised Alex Salmond and a bunch of less-talented pals is now the third biggest force in British politics. Indeed, with Labour currently behaving like one of those monks who has set himself on fire in protest at something or other, the Nats are arguably the only credible opposition. What they did to Labour in May - cutting them down to a solitary Westminster seat in their traditional Scottish heartland - they will repeat next May in the Scottish Parliament elections.

I'm sure the SNP leadership doesn't regret any of this for a moment. It is a staggering achievement. But as anyone with a rapidly expanding business - whether in widgets or politics - knows, success has unintended consequences. And one is those odd, uppity new staff members.

Take the unlovely Michelle Thomson. Elected as MP for Edinburgh West in May and immediately appointed business spokesperson, she has been forced to resign the party whip over property deals that are under police investigation. Now sitting as an independent, she has been referred to the Commons standards watchdog and her lawyer has been struck off.

A bigger problem for the SNP than the loss of an MP (they have plenty to spare, after all) is the nature of the scandal. Thomson is accused of building a buy-to-let portfolio by purchasing houses at below market value from families struggling to pay their mortgage. In some instances, it is alleged the mortgages secured to fund the purchases were considerably higher than the amounts passed on to the sellers.

The problem is this: a key part of the Nats' strategy is to pretend they are the opposite of politics-as-usual - outsiders, not part of the elite, untempted and untainted by the kind of money and sex scandals that dog the big two. They are the equivalent of a challenger bank, representing the consumer interest against the corporatist establishment. Piety and moral superiority are two planks on which the sentimental case for Scottish independence rests. It is nonsense, of course. The greatest danger to the indy cause is that this newfound eminence will expose the SNP as just another bunch of hacks on the make. Michelle Thomson won't be the last example of that.

Speaking of growing businesses, our own little enterprise is now into its 22nd month. No longer a baby, if not yet quite an adult, our strategic communications company, Charlotte Street Partners, has, I believe, built a bit of a name for itself. This is partly due to our innate brilliance, of course, but also a hyperactive Twitter presence and the fact that three of the four partners write weekly newspaper columns that usually violently disagree with one another.

We were worried about this at the start - we're a noisy and combative bunch who can, um, divide opinion. Our saving grace is that we're well hedged between left and right, unionist and nationalist, correct (me) and mistaken (the others). Interestingly, our willingness to express robust views on everything from constitutional matters to education policy to Jeremy Corbyn's unnerving penchant for vests seems to have become one of the main attractions for clients.

There are now 11 of us. We've had to move into a bigger office and send people on training courses and do all sorts of other grown-up things. Recently, we've been rethinking our launch branding, which we've decided isn't cool enough for funky dudes and dudettes like us. I've become especially obsessed with our font. Out with yucky Avenir Book and in with groovy Helvetica Neue, baby.

The former boss of Edelman, Robert Phillips, has written a book called Trust Me, PR is Dead. As someone who has only really just entered the industry I found this rather disconcerting, and therefore scrutinised his recent interview for MT - life's too short to read a book about PR, especially dead PR - with some care. Thankfully, it quickly became clear that he's talking self-serving bollocks.

Tellingly, Phillips has a new business to promote which, in classic PR style, he describes as 'a flat network of experienced, differently skilled people. We're defined by ill- definition...we don't mind saying, "Sorry, we don't have the answer."' He criticised the industry for 'doing and selling...never actually thinking'. Speak for yourself, mate. He also outs himself as a 'fucking socialist', which, now I think about it, sounds about right.

Chris Deerin is a partner at Charlotte Street Partners, a strategic communications consultancy, based in Edinburgh and London. Follow him on Twitter: @chrisdeerin

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