ACCORDING to an old joke, a university is a group of anarchists joined together by a central heating system. I might be tempted, given the events of recent times, to call a political party something similar, except without the warmth.

Certainly the idea of the SNP being a party which controls itself by dint of rigorous, voluntary, internal discipline seems no longer to be true, with inevitable disputes now making their way into the public domain, where they are joyfully welcomed by the Unionist parties and hysterically repeated ad nauseam by the Unionist press.

In reality, much of this coverage is highly partisan and woefully short on facts. The BBC’s weekend online reporting of the current selection contest in East Kilbride, for example, didn’t bother to quote anyone in the constituency other than the sitting MP herself.

No-one who knows contemporary Scotland could, of course, be shocked by such reporting, nor by the fact that although almost 80% of his SNP parliamentary colleagues voted to censure Fergus Ewing, most of the subsequent media coverage allowed him to make further sweeping assertions, including the insultingly false claim that he alone was putting the people of Scotland first.

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I would regard myself as a friend of Fergus despite our differences on many things and especially social policy. I will never forget the extraordinary compassion and empathy he showed to the families of the two men lost on the Nancy Glen, when that boat sank within sight of Tarbert in January 2018.

He was the key figure in forcing its refloating and by so doing he ensured that the bodies would be recovered.

Fergus is also a formidable politician, taking the Inverness seat at the first Scottish Parliament election and holding it at every one thereafter. He combines his mother’s campaigning skills with his father’s keen mind and attention to detail.

Of course, after every one of those elections he has – willingly – signed a set of standing orders that bind him, as an MSP, to collective party discipline.

Those standing orders are not designed to suppress debate, but to make sure it takes place in a way that does not damage or deflect from the SNP’s core purpose, which is to win independence.

They are, if you like, the means by which the party can ensure its promises are delivered and, when that is difficult, they also provide the mechanisms for mutual support, including the exercise of conscience votes in clearly defined and well understood circumstances.

The SNP MSP group may at times have got some of those circumstances wrong by, for example, not accepting a conscience vote on the Gender Recognition Reform Bill, but clearly there has to be agreement among the group about what is a conscience matter and what is not. Moral and ethical dilemmas are – but road widening isn’t.

In addition, members with a problematic constituency issue can also claim the right not to observe a whip if that issue is threatened. The A9 might well be such a case for Fergus, although, as I understand it, there remains a commitment to deliver agreed improvements.

Finally, in what seems to be turning into a plea in mitigation, I think it is true, as Joanna Cherry has observed that there has been “inadequate debate in [our] party about policy making” and that may be an understandable element in Fergus’s current thinking, though I hope the ongoing governance review will improve the situation.

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However, that issue is part of an inevitable tension between government and party, something that is not unique to the SNP, and, as a senior minister, Fergus had better opportunity than most to influence policy outcomes.

What is really at issue here is not the right to express an opinion, nor to seek conscience or constituency interest special voting dispensations. Fergus simply has a general but increasingly deep-rooted dislike of the direction of the party and how that direction is expressed in policy and legislative terms, even though the party itself has indicated, by a sizeable majority, that it approves of such progress.

So if Fergus cannot live with these policies and cannot support them, the problem is not the SNP’s but Fergus’s. I don’t say that unkindly, but as a simple fact.

However, it is demonstrably not fair on his colleagues, and especially not fair on a new leader, to mount what has seemed at times to be a one-man guerrilla press war against the SNP in government, or to take it to the lengths of voting with the Tories on a motion of confidence in a minister in that government and then when given to a remarkably light sanction (again agreed by a clear and large majority) to persist in asserting that it is the party and almost all of its elected representatives that is at fault, not him.

Such actions are bad enough in any party. In a party of independence, where the politics of governing are bound up with the politics of moving on from the current state we are in, they are even more difficult to thole given that they threaten that core purpose and are shamelessly used by our opponents to do just that.

It isn’t too late to change. I for one would be delighted if Fergus were to accept that there is a better way of expressing dissent and that he did owe his colleagues and his party at least a modicum of respect.

I would never criticise him for being a constant and passionate advocate for the A9, nor for promoting pro-business action and seeking to ameliorate legislation or regulation that he thinks would damage his constituents.

But he needs to remember this. He has won five successive Holyrood elections not only because he has proven to be a good local representative, nor solely because his mother was greatly respected across the Highlands.

He has done so because his name was next to the SNP symbol on the ballot paper, and voters chose that, too.