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The Highland Line: democracy, Argyll and Bute style

It's democracy, but perhaps not as recognised in other parts of Scotland. And you'll need to pay close attention to what comes next...

Observers of  Argyll and Bute Council may well be feeling a bit dizzy after a week or so of inter- and intra-party turmoil among elected members of the authority.

It ended with the SNP leader of the council leaving the party to work with the new coalition of Liberal Democrat/Conservative/Independent councillors who are now running the council. The former council leader, the independent Dunoon councillor  Dick Walsh, returned to the top job.

Roddy McCuish had been leading a minority SNP administration which lost control  last week after an attempt to form a coalition with other parties was thwarted.

He and another senior councillor, Mary Jean Devon from Mull,  announced they were leaving the SNP after a troubled period. Following earlier resignations, it means the SNP group now stands at just eight. 

But it was still the largest single party group after last year's council elections with 13, although that was two fewer that the total number of independent councillors.

Initially, the SNP  formed an administration with the Argyll First Group of independent councillors. But it didn't get off to the best of starts with the Martha Payne  story about her  NeverSeconds blog on school meals  in Lochgilphead Primary breaking just a month or so after the election.

It was to result in a truly global media frenzy, with Martha raising  more than £100,000 for children in Malawi .It could barely have been handled worse by the authority.

Martha had been removed from her class, taken to the headteacher's office, and told that she could no longer take photographs of her food inside the dining hall for her blog. Argyll and Bute Council said press coverage of the blog had led catering staff to fear for their jobs.

The decision  apparently had been made by council officials without the involvement of councillors,  but few made the distinction despite Roddy McCuish's fairly swift response that he had instructed senior officials to lift the ban immediately.

Then there was a long running saga over the highly controversial closure of a care home in Dunoon. The Argyll First Group withdrew from the coalition,  leaving the SNP as a minority administration.

Then in May this year the SNP group  was suspended by the party hierarchy for attempting to form a coalition with the Tories and Lib Dems without consent from Edinburgh HQ.

To outsiders, it didn't appear like a hanging offence. After all, the SNP is involved in coalitions elsewhere. In its northern  neighbour, Highland Council for example, the party leads a rainbow coalition with the Lib Dems and their normally deadly enemies, Labour. 

Indeed  the council convener is Inverness Labour councillor Jimmy Gray while the council leader is the SNP  councillor for Aird and Loch Ness Drew Hendry.

But local intelligence held that the internal SNP problems in Argyll had at least something  to do with Argyll MSP Michael Russell's relations with certain figures in the local party.

The coalition plan was called off  and the group was reinstated by the party and carried on as a minority SNP council administration. However, there was disquiet among some in the group about the way they had been treated by Edinburgh.

Last week, the group  revealed that it was about to agree another partnership, this time with the non-party group, the Argyll and Bute Alliance for Change.  But its leader suspended negotiations with the SNP because he had received representations from the Liberal Democrat and Conservative grouping, which he wished to explore.

Explore them he did, and promptly dumped his erstwhile suitors. As a result a new coalition administration was formed without the SNP.

Mr McCuish, who had served twice as council leader since last year's council elections,  said: "I want to work for the people of Argyll, and those of Oban, Lorn and the Isles in particular. So  I will work with the incoming administration , but unfortunately I have to leave the SNP to do so."

In case there was any doubt a spokesman at SNP HQ said: "Last week's talks about the SNP potentially joining the administration did not lead to that outcome, and we're of course disappointed that individuals have chosen to leave the group as a result. We wish them well."

Meanwhile Dick Walsh seemed to go out of his way to pay tribute to Roddy McCuish, and said: "Today's decision forms a platform for progress and there is a real willingness for councillors to work together for the best possible outcome for the people of Argyll and Bute."

As a result of it all,  there are now 16 councillors in the Argyll and Bute Alliance for Change:  14 Independents, one Not Politically Affiliated...and one Tory. It embraces  the three councillors in the Argyll First Group which contains the Tory and two Independents.

Then there is their administration partners, the  Argyll, Lomond and the Islands Group which has four LibDems,  three Tories, one Independent, and  Roddy McCuish and Mary Jean Devon.

The eight in the SNP group and former SNP councillor Fred Hall,  who is now Not Politically Affiliated, form the opposition.

This democracy business can get confusing at times.

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