A VETERAN Highland councillor has joined the SNP after accusing Independent colleagues of freezing him out because he refused to sign up for their group, it has emerged.
And Independent Bill Clark has claimed his move has sounded the death knell for the tradition of "true" independent councillors in the Highlands.
The Lochaber councillor’s switch strengthens the new Nationalist-led administration’s majority in an early coup for the SNP.
Councillor Clark claimed he had been politically "threatened" since the local authority elections in May to sign up for the Independent group of councillors or be left out in the cold.
He refused because he said being an Independent did not tally with signing up for a group and voting as one entity.
However, Independent leader Carolyn Wilson said Councillor Clark had never been a group member and dismissed the threat claims.
At a meeting of the full council in Inverness earlier this month the 68-year-old said he was deliberately not nominated for membership of any strategic committees — which take key decisions on a host of council services including roads and education — because of his stance.
He claimed that he would not be able to represent his constituents unless he was in a position to influence so sought SNP membership.
The council’s administration, which also includes the Liberal Democrats and Labour, now enjoys a majority of 46 councillors compared to 34 Independents, which makes it easier to push through its policies.
Half that total will be SNP, the most councillors it has ever had in the region.
The Independents were furious after they were outmanoeuvred by the parties in the coalition talks despite having the biggest number of councillors elected. The group is now in opposition and had accused the parties of conspiring to freeze them out.
But Councillor Clark, who is in his third term as an elected member, has now accused the Independent group of freezing him out.
"I think it is fair to say that members leading the Independent group were never going to allow me to be nominated for any of the council’s committees," he said. "It was impressed on me that I had to join the group or forget about being nominated and so it has come to pass, they have delivered on their threat.
"This not only makes it difficult for me to fully represent my constituents, it is also an unacceptable way for Independent councillors to behave.
"In my opinion there is now no room for a truly Independent councillor on Highland Council. The Independents have formed themselves into a bona fida political party."
Councillor Clark (Caol and Mallaig) was a SNP member when he was younger and his Nationalist sympathies are no secret. He backs Scottish independence, admitted the move was a "natural" one for him and accepted he would have to vote with the party but insisted "independent thinking" was encouraged.
Councillor Clark accused the Independent leadership of having an "intense dislike" of the SNP and claimed their ranks were full of Conservatives.
The Lochaber councillor has forged a reputation as an unwhippable member and had quit the Independent group which ran the previous council.
However, Councillor Wilson was unsurprised at Councillor Clark’s move because his SNP loyalties were widely known and said he had regularly voted with the party in the council chamber before.
She dismissed his claims that he had been pressurised into signing up for the Independent group so he could serve on committees. "Bill Clark has never attended an Independent group meeting and has never been a member, he is non-aligned," said Councillor Wilson, who also described his Tory claims as "rubbish" and denied there was a real dislike for the SNP.
Drew Hendry, the SNP and council leader, said: "We see Bill Clark as a councillor with expertise, valuable experience and a lot to offer.
"Bill has always focussed on making the right choices for his ward but has also understood the need to work with others. We admire his honesty and integrity, qualities that everyone wants to see in public service."
Councillor Clark’s move is the second defection since the elections after Wester Ross Lib Dem Biz Campbell quit and declared herself an Independent, only hours after the results were announced.