Willie Rennie has been questioning the fact that Alex Salmond's Special Adviser seems to have an inappropriately familiar relationship with SCVO Chief Executive Martin Sime over the issue of a second question on Devo Max on the independence referendum ballot paper.
It's already been stated by numerous constitutional experts that a second question could give an unclear outcome. Much as I and every other Liberal Democrat wants to see more powers for the Scottish Parliament, a second question in this referendum is not the way to deliver it.
The SNP themselves say they only want one question, "Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?" Why then, is Alex Bell, Alex Salmond's Special Adviser, sending an email circulating a Unite poll supporting a second question? Out of the goodness of his heart? Or is it that the SNP know that they can't win on independence because most Scots do not want the UK to be split up and they're grappling around for some sort of face saving consolation prize? Even better if they can encourage supposedly independent organisations to do their legwork on this for them.
So, Willie Rennie wrote to Alison Elliot, the Convener of SCVO, asking her to consider the position of Martin Sime. His letter said:
I am sure your members will be dismayed to learn that Mr Sime is allowing the SNP to use the SCVO as a front organisation to make its case for a second question. As you are more than aware the SVCO exist to represent the views and interests of Scotland’s third sector. Mr Sime has displayed poor judgement by involving himself in a highly polarised debate on matters of process regarding the constitutional referendum.
SCVO exist to represent the views and interests of Scotland’s third sector. It provides expert opinion to decision makers on a range of subjects including health, education, justice and regeneration. I value the critical role the organisation plays. However, Martin Sime is undermining the impartiality of that opinion by backing the SNP in a highly polarised debate on constitutional process matters on which he has neither locus nor expertise. I believe that Mr Sime should consider his position as Chief Executive of SCVO.Alison Elliot's reply, published by Holyrood magazine in full , is extraordinary in its hostile and unprofessional tone.
There is simply no excuse for the head of any organisation to write to anyone in these terms, no matter how much they have offended you:
I consider your allegations preposterous, your interpretation of the incidents fanciful and your attempt to interfere in the business of an independent organisation unworthy of a public leader. I have no intention of asking Martin to resign.Her comments will no doubt play well to the SNP gallery, but ordinary people and, indeed, people working in the voluntary sector, feel disquiet about the way a supposedly independent organisation seems to be working hand in glove with the establishment. I've had it said to me that Sime and Elliot have lost the plot on this, that they have no mandate for what they're saying and that they are making it difficult for SCVO to work with anyone other than the SNP in the future. And that's from people who have nothing to do with the Liberal Democrats.
Every organisation and individual has the right to take part in the debate on Scotland's future. In fact, when it comes to future devolution, I want to see something like another constitutional convention where civic society and people and politicians come together to develop a consensus as to where we should go next. What's wrong, though, is where they're doing so at the direct urging of the SNP Government and not telling us that. Debate on a second question is welcome but when it's being manipulated behind by scenes by SNP SpAds, we need to know.
I get Alison Elliot's desire to protect her member of staff but its angry tone does nothing to reassure those who will be alarmed by the emergence of such links. Had I been in her position, I'd have been opening the door to Willie Rennie, inviting him for a meeting to reassure him, not slamming it in his face. I'd have made it clear that I didn't think there was a case to answer, but I'd have wanted to show that I was engaging with everybody. All she's done with such an emotionally charged outburst is to add weight to Willie's argument.
In response to Alison Elliot's caustic reply, Willie said:
I've clearly touched a raw nerve. These are serious concerns about the impartiality of the Chief Executive of SCVO and clearly deserve a better response. I think people will be concerned that SCVO has taken one side of a highly polarised, political debate. First we had the attempt to undermine the launch of Better Together and now hard evidence of collusion with one of Alex Salmond's close advisers. SCVO are in serious danger of undermining their reputation.
Liberals exist to challenge excesses of the state - and in this case, by so brazenly attempting to manipulate the debate for its own ends and not being transparent about it, the SNP has been shown to be wanting. SCVO damages its position as an independent organisation by being seen to dance to the SNP's tune. Willie is right to ask questions.