No exit

STAGES: Nicola Sturgeon outlined a staggered timetable for leaving lockdown.

Nicola Sturgeon gave a Covid-19 update to the Scottish Parliament on February 23, 2021This is the text of my Scottish Daily Mail sketch of proceedings. 

On hectic days like yesterday, with the Crown Office at loggerheads with Holyrood and the First Minister grilled on a much-trumpeted Covid statement, you appreciate the lilting Hebridean tones of Lewis Macdonald. 

The deputy presiding officer rolls his Rs like Shane Warne rolls a spin bowl; you can’t help but be mesmerised by the range he gets on them. Ruth Davidson became Rrrrrruth while Nationalist backbencher Maureen Watt was summoned as Moe-rrrrreen. Macdonald imparts a zen-like calm to proceedings and may be the reason the usual SNP chuntering was kept to a minimum. 

For her part, Nicola Sturgeon (‘the Fuh-rrrst Minis-tuhrrr’) was muted, her mind no doubt drawn to other matters like a curious tongue to a throbbing tooth. Yet this had been touted as a major lockdown update. 

Not quite. Scotland would be moving into a process of ‘progressive easing’, which sounded like some monetary jiggery-pokery the Bank of England might get up to, but in fact meant that our liberation would be a long, slow process. BBC Scotland had hyped the statement as a ‘roadmap out of lockdown’ but it turned out we were getting the Ordnance Survey in instalments. 

The first stop-off was the return of some children to school this past Monday, followed by liberalisation of the rules on care home visits from early March. The next destination was getting older primary and more secondary school pupils back in the classroom, as well as permitting a maximum of four people from two households to meet outdoors. 

The date given for this was March 15, though only ‘indicatively’ — adj. (late Sturgeonese) of or relating to ministerial promises and their likelihood of subsequent revision.

After that, it was the First Minister’s ‘hope and expectation’ that the stay-at-home order could be lifted from April 5. It is my hope and expectation that my lottery numbers will come up around the same time. 

General lockdown was to pertain until the last week in April (‘if all goes according to plan’), at which point everyone would go into Level Three. If you’ve forgotten what that means — because, at this point, there are Emmerdale storylines more straightforward than Scotland’s Covid rules — it involves such hell-raising shenanigans as meeting your neighbour in their garden. 

If you really want to let your hair down you can travel to the outskirts of your local authority area — but no further. 

From here ‘we would expect to see phased but significant reopening of the economy, including non-essential retail, hospitality and services like gyms and hairdressers’. One bright spot amid the glumness was the government’s willingness to be flexible with the reintroduction of communal worship. Pencilled in for April 5, Sturgeon said it may start ‘a few days earlier’ to ‘take account of the timing of major religious festivals, for example Easter and Passover’. 

Perhaps taking Mosaic inspiration, Ruth Davidson urged the First Minister to let her people go.

‘This is not a route map out of Covid,’ the Scottish Tory leader lamented, ‘it is a holding document for the next eight weeks.’ 

Scots, she averred, would have tuned in ‘expecting the First Minister to give them some kind of hope’. (Anyone expecting that must have been tuning in for the first time.)

Labour’s Jackie Baillie — ordinarily a cheery soul — underlined the gloom. ‘I want to be optimistic and I am equally patient but I would like to ask the First Minister what the ultimate goal is.’ Was it virus suppression or virus elimination?

The goal, Sturgeon replied, was ‘as close to elimination as possible’ but also ‘to get back to normal life’. Those two destinations are miles apart with no roadmap for the rough terrain in between. 

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol] dailymail.co.uk.

Should Scottish elections go ahead during a pandemic?

DECISION DAY: Scots go to the polls on May 6.

Did you know there’s an election in 73 days’ time? I’ve been struck by how many normal people (which is to say, people who don’t watch BBC Parliament to relax) are unaware that Scotland goes to the polls on May 6. Being kept away from Holyrood by the pandemic brings all sorts of disadvantages for a political journalist, but it does give you an insight into the gulf between the chatter inside the bubble and what the country at large is talking about.

The bubble is near bursting with speculation about the outcome of the Scottish Parliament poll and what it might mean for the possibility of another referendum on independence. The rest of the country is focused on jabs, school reopenings and supermarket delivery slots and for some talk of an election has still not filtered through.

Whenever I’ve had the conversation with non-politicos in recent weeks, those learning for the first time that a vote is on the way have tended to say the same thing: Shouldn’t we get the pandemic out of the way first? It’s a question I now find myself asking because, although in principle I’d rather see democracy defy Covid, I can’t shake my concerns about the safety and logistical implications of going ahead as normal.

These aren’t normal times. People have been forced to stay at home and instructed only to leave the house for essential reasons, yet for one day in May those requirements will cease to exist. For some reason, it will pose no or little risk to have hundreds of thousands — even millions — of people leave their homes, travel to their polling station and queue up to vote in tiny booths. We are told it is unsafe for 51 people, sitting at two metres’ distance, to worship in a church but that it is entirely safe for hundreds to cram into a church hall to cast their ballot.

Now, it could be that general restrictions have been relaxed by then but here ministers risk sending mixed messages. On several occasions in the last 11 months, businesses learned only at the last minute that they would have to close or remain closed, with pubs and the retail trade especially prone to the caprices of St Andrew’s House. Yet the same ministers and officials have been able to say for months that the Holyrood vote was good to go.

Much of the public health rationale for going ahead with the election rests on the use of postal ballots. Maximise voting by post and you minimise the risk of new Covid cases piling up faster than ballot papers. Officials have suggested that two million Scots could have their say by post this year, but to achieve that will require Herculean operations for both registration and counting. In the 2016 election, less than one-fifth of eligible electors applied for a postal vote and almost one-quarter of them were not returned. In all, postal votes accounted for less than one-quarter of ballots cast.

Processing such an expansion in postal vote applications will place a heavy burden on local authority staff, many of whom are working remotely, while counting these ballots in a way that retains the confidence of parties, candidates and the public may prove particularly onerous.

Then there are the practicalities involved in getting two million people to register for a vote by post. The form is online, like most other things these days, but not everyone is as digitally literate as our tech-worshipping culture assumes. Older people, in particular, risk losing their vote. While some cyber-savvy grandmothers could put their gamer grandchildren to shame, some will be without a computer, tablet or smartphone. Others still find navigating the web confusing and intimidating. (I use a clutch of digital devices every day for work, yet when I tried to register for a postal vote yesterday I had to go through three different websites — UK Government, local authority, Electoral Commission — before landing on the correct form.)

In ordinary times, this wouldn’t be a problem; applicants could phone up the council and get a form sent to them. But how many older people will feel comfortable venturing out to find a pillar box, possibly having to take public transport to reach one? The deadline for postal vote applications is April 6. Even those who have received both Covid jabs by that point may be apprehensive, given the uncertainty about the vaccine’s effectiveness against emerging variants of the virus. Children, neighbours or friends could usually help by dropping off forms or giving lifts to the post office but restrictions on mixing make this more difficult or impossible.

There is a very real chance that older people — and other vulnerable groups — could be disenfranchised in this election, and in numbers disproportionate to the rest of the population. That should not be an acceptable outcome for anyone. It’s true that local elections are taking place in England on the same day, but hasn’t the whole thrust of the Scottish Government’s Covid response been to take a more cautious approach than down south?

To put suspicious minds at ease, the case for delaying the election has nothing to do with the SNP being so far ahead in the polls. When the vaccination stage of the pandemic is complete, Chancellor Rishi Sunak will be looking to jump-start economic recovery and we have to expect that this will include a phasing out of the Job Retention Scheme and efficiency savings to bring the national debt back under control. Even if the government manages to avoid Osborne-style austerity, it will still have to take some very unpopular decisions. If the Holyrood poll was postponed for six months or even a year, there is every chance the SNP’s polling lead could be even higher than it is today.

This is not about politics or polling. It is about public safety and the integrity of elections, specifically about ensuring that certain groups aren’t excluded because officials making decisions don’t fully understand their needs. No one’s health should be put in jeopardy when they go to vote but nor should their vote be forfeited because they are not au fait with digital technology.

Scotland does not feel like a country 73 days away from a major election. Perhaps a turbo-charged effort is about to leap forth from the Scottish Government and town halls across the nation but the hurdles it will face are daunting.

It is not too late for ministers and officials to rethink their plans and decide to err on the side of caution. Lives, jobs, relationships and routine healthcare have been put on hold until the pandemic is over. There is no reason the same cannot be done with an election.

*****

Scottish Labour leadership hopeful Anas Sarwar said something last week that stuck with me: ‘Just imagine if we had spent the last four or eight years obsessed with ending poverty like we’ve been obsessed with independence or Brexit.’

There is plenty to obsess over. Even before Covid-19, 23 per cent of Scottish children were living in relative poverty and 20 per cent in absolute poverty. Among the worst-off families with children, 61 per cent cannot afford to set aside £10 a month in savings. Between 2014 and 2019, there was an 80 per cent increase in Scots turning to food banks.

This kind of poverty isn’t just a political failure, it’s a moral failure, especially when we know the poorest children are more likely to struggle in school and suffer ill-health.
Just imagine if Nicola Sturgeon was obsessed with that instead of flags. Just imagine if Scottish Labour had a leader like Anas Sarwar who could offer Scots an alternative to indolent nationalism.

*****

Oliver Lewis has quit the beleaguered Union Unit after just two weeks. His resignation came as Larry the Cat celebrated ten years as Chief Mouser to the Cabinet Office. Larry has seen off two prime ministers, three chancellors and rival moggy Palmerston. If the PM needs someone to take on the SNP, he would be purr-fect for the job.

*****

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol] dailymail.co.uk.

Sturgeon reacts to scrutiny like Dracula to garlic bread

PROTEST: Nicola Sturgeon rejects claims the Scottish Government didn’t prepare for a possible pandemic.

Nicola Sturgeon faced opposition leaders at First Minister’s Questions on February 17, 2021This is the text of my Scottish Daily Mail sketch of proceedings. 

Achilles had his heel, Superman his Kryptonite and Nicola Sturgeon the merest chance of accountability. Scrutiny is the First Minister’s greatest weakness. She reacts to it like Count Dracula to garlic bread.

Ruth Davidson served up an extra large slice of interrogation at FMQs, majoring on an Audit Scotland report critical of the Scottish Government’s lack of pandemic preparation.

The Tory leader cited planning exercises beginning in 2015 that resulted in 52 recommendations. ‘How many of those recommendations had been implemented by the Scottish Government by March 2020?’ she enquired.

Sturgeon shot back that the training exercises were for a ‘flu pandemic’ rather than a SARs pandemic. If they’d just called it an ‘indyref2 pandemic’ they might have caught her attention.

Davidson focused in on the failure to keep medics stocked up on PPE, adding: ‘We simply should not have had National Health Service staff being forced to work without adequate protection, reusing masks and having to beg for donations because PPE was not in place.’

There was a sliver of contempt in her voice.

‘I do not accept Ruth Davidson’s characterisation and I do not believe that it bears scrutiny,’ Sturgeon riposted. ‘Scotland has never, not once, throughout the entire pandemic run out of PPE.’

That’s true, provided you count out-of-date PPE. A mouldy loaf is still technically a loaf.

Davidson had her woman but there was no zip of excitement, none of the punchy energy that used to mark her sparring sessions with the First Minister. It’s obvious she has already moved on in her heart and is now just going through the motions.

’The First Minister stands there telling us that there was no issue with PPE last year,’ the Edinburgh Central MSP glowered. ‘Perhaps she wants to tell that to Scotland’s nurses, half of whom told the Royal College of Nursing that they had been forced to reuse single-use protection.’

Here, she twisted the shiv:

‘The Scottish Government is now reviewing the guidance, but it is far too late for too many grieving families. Is it not just a fact that had the First Minister and her government acted sooner… some lives in those care homes could have been saved?’

Oooft, as the kids say.

Sturgeon’s accounting for herself was robotic. ‘Again, I say no — I do not accept that,’ she responded, as if Davidson had just accused her of tanning the Holyrood biscuit tin rather than sending grannies to an early grave. The fight has not left Sturgeon but she could not summon it for this joust. Perhaps her instincts have been blunted by a lack of challenging voices in her vicinity.

Surrounded all day by taxpayer-funded special advisors whose primary job is positive re-enforcement, Sturgeon has no one to act as a thoughtful critic. Peter Murrell could do it, I suppose, but everyone knows the head of the SNP and the head of the Scottish Government never discuss the SNP or the Scottish Government.

Labour’s interim leader Jackie Baillie was even less delicate: ‘The First Minister had warning after warning after warning, so was her failure to act negligence or incompetence?’

Indignation gripped the corners of Sturgeon’s mouth: ‘I am not even going to respond to that, because it is actually quite demeaning — not to me, but to the people across government and across the country who have worked every single day to try to deal with the crisis.’

The First Minister couldn’t get PPE to nurses but she’s always got a human shield on hand when she needs one.

Baillie dismissed Sturgeon’s demagoguery and told her to ‘stop hiding behind’ NHS staff, jabbing: ‘Do not just clap for health and social care workers; listen and act when they ask for enhanced PPE.’

Sturgeon clambered for the moral high ground, preaching in vicarly tones to ‘engage properly on such matters, rather than just chuck soundbites across a parliamentary chamber’. This from someone who chucked enough soundbites in opposition to qualify for the Olympic javelin finals.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol] dailymail.co.uk.

Nicola’s miracle of the open and closed churches

DOUBT: Labour’s Elaine Smith casts a sceptical glance at the First Minister’s claim that churches are not closed.

Nicola Sturgeon gave a Covid-19 update to the Scottish Parliament on February 16, 2021This is the text of my Scottish Daily Mail sketch of proceedings. 

If you are a parent whose children will soon be going back to primary school, I can only imagine what a relief that will be,’ Nicola Sturgeon remarked yesterday, announcing a ‘phased reopening’ of classrooms from Monday.

I doubt many parents took a moment to be relieved and instead were furiously Googling to see whether street parties are permitted under lockdown rules.

Ministers would have to monitor what impact, if any, the return to the chalkface had on the spread of Covid but, Sturgeon added, ‘I hope that in two weeks’ time, we will be able to set out the second phase of school reopening’. 

For mums and dads abruptly deputised as advanced maths teachers for the past year, soon their afternoons will be free of any arithmetic more demanding than the Countdown numbers round.

Still, the First Minister cautioned parents not to use this as an excuse to mingle at the school gates. ‘If the return to school leads to more contacts between adults over the next few weeks, transmission of the virus will quickly rise again,’ she instructed.

Thank goodness we’re not planning any events soon that involve the entire adult population leaving home to stand in long queues, be handed a slip of paper by a stranger then cram themselves into tiny booths. Lord knows what that would do to infection rates.

Maurice Corry speaks with the booming register of the retired Army major that he is. It’s sometimes hard to tell whether the Tory MSP is asking a question or ordering an incursion into the Lib Dem benches.

He sought assurances that the Scottish Government would stick to current quarantine arrangements for Merchant Navy crew coming and going from Scotland, noting they were ‘often’ returning ‘from extended tours of duty’.

He pronounced ‘often’ with three Rs, as though greeting a visiting general who had dropped in unexpectedly on the officers’ mess. Sturgeon could see no reason why the status quo would change, given the crews were considered essential workers, but stressed the importance of mass compliance to reduce the need for exemptions.

Labour’s Elaine Smith asked about the possibility of reopening churches in time for Easter. She had written to the First Minister ‘at the start of the year’ about the value of communal worship but had ‘received no response as yet’.

Sturgeon protested that ‘places of worship are not closed but, of course, the ability to worship normally is restricted’, plus some wordy mush about how much the whole business pained her.

When the Presiding Officer blew the final whistle, Smith raised a point of order, arguing that telling the public that churches were not closed risked sending mixed messages.

Noting that it wasn’t technically a point of order, Ken Macintosh ventured that it was nonetheless ‘a helpful point of correction that the First Minister will–’

Up came a nasal heckling from the Nationalist frontbench. Watching Holyrood via video link sometimes makes it difficult to identify the source of sedentary chuntering, but I have my suspicions. The name begins with ‘Swin’, ends in ‘ney’ and has a massive attainment gap in the middle.

Macintosh became flustered then allowed Sturgeon the last word, because if there’s anyone we don’t hear enough from these days, it’s Nicola Sturgeon. She insisted there was no inconsistency in what she had said: ‘Places of worship are not closed but they are only able to be open for very limited purposes.’

I’m not sure how she thinks places of worship operate. We don’t get ratted on the communion wine and conga round the altar. Even before the pandemic many churches opened only for services, baptisms and funerals and, in a reflection of the times, seldom bustled with congregants.

Yet somehow Nicola Sturgeon has rendered them both open and closed at the same time. It’s not quite up there with the loaves and fishes but it’s got to count as some kind of miracle. 

*****

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol] dailymail.co.uk.

UK has a right to protect itself from separatism

In political combat, treat even your opponents’ empty threats as real. Unionists should bear this principle in mind when approaching the SNP’s sabre-rattling about securing a second independence referendum in the event of a Nationalist majority after May’s Holyrood election. 

I remain of the view that Nicola Sturgeon is bluffing to pander to her diehards, but cynicism is no excuse for complacency. Unionists haven’t the foggiest how to counter Sturgeon’s strategy. 

Labour and the Liberal Democrats are making like ostriches and suddenly finding something very interesting in the ground that requires immediate attention. From Whitehall there is a deadly broth of ignorance, indifference, avoidance and fear.

Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross rails against an ‘illegal referendum’ and, asked by Andrew Neil last week whether SNP ministers should face criminal charges if they proceed with such, ominously replied: ‘They have to be answerable for their actions.’

This matter could do with a little more light and a lot less heat. Ross seems to consider the SNP’s plan as analogous to the unlawful referendum held in Catalonia in 2017 and he is not alone. The Nationalists meant for this to be the conclusion drawn by friend and foe alike. 

The intended audience for their proposal is their grassroots, who have grown impatient with Sturgeon’s failure to produce another vote despite much rhetoric. The hope among SNP strategists is that, by implying a Catalan-style wildcat plebiscite lies on the other side of May’s election, disgruntled supporters will turn out once more and heed the hoary plea for ‘both votes SNP’. 

In fact, all the Nationalists are committing to is seeking a Section 30 order (a constitutional thumbs up from Westminster) if Holyrood returns a pro-secession majority. If not, they claim, they will press ahead with a referendum Bill and dare the UK Government to try to stop them in court. There is no provision in the road map for holding a referendum if the courts side with Westminster. 

This dunts us along the path this controversy is inevitably heading. The Catalan referendum was not unlawful because the central government said so, but because the Spanish Constitutional Court did. Carles Puigdemont’s administration pressed ahead regardless and the world was treated to ugly scenes as Madrid sent in the police to frustrate the vote. 

Spain’s constitution is ‘based on the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation, the common and indivisible homeland of all Spaniards’. The UK has no such provision, so while the dominant theory of devolution is that the constitution and referendums that implicate it are reserved to Westminster, the question has never been tested in court.

Downing Street has some experience of humiliating reversals at the Supreme Court but it seems perilously unperturbed by the possibility of another. It proposes, simply, to just say No.

There is much prating from Nationalists that denying a referendum would be ‘undemocratic’. Popular sovereignty is a perfectly respectable theory of democracy but one at odds with the Westminster model in which sovereignty resides with the Crown-in-Parliament under God.

That might sound stuffy to modern ears but it is the basis on which Parliament proceeds when it legislates. Far from being undemocratic, Westminster would be upholding the devolution settlement Scotland voted for, a settlement that distinguished reserved from devolved issues and vested the former in the UK Parliament.

There is already a democratic means for bringing about another independence referendum: the SNP needs to convince MPs to vote for one, something it could try to do in exchange for supply and confidence in a hung Parliament, which was the outcome of two of the last four general elections.

Instead, it wishes to hijack the parliament created by the 1997 referendum to pursue the dismantling of devolution and its replacement with a separate state.

It is a subversion not only of the purpose of devolution but of the concept of electoral mandates. The Nationalists are saying, in effect, that a mandate can be achieved in an election to one parliament for the exercise of powers that reside with another parliament. That, as long as enough people want something, constitutional process does not matter.

This populist spin on parliamentary democracy has implications even when a given Parliament’s legislative competence is not in doubt.

Those elsewhere in the UK, particularly London liberals, who would feel uneasy if Westminster denied a majority-SNP parliament another plebiscite, should think on the precedent they would be encouraging. If Scotland can get a referendum on leaving the UK, why can’t England get one on withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights? Why should popular sentiment force the Government’s hand in one part of the country but not another?

Some Unionists propose all these issues be dealt with via a Clarity Act, named after legislation passed in Canada following the Quebec separatists’ hair-splittingly narrow defeat in 1995. The Act sets out a rough framework of criteria for Ottawa entering negotiations with any province seeking independence.

Its House of Commons gets to decide whether a referendum question is ‘clear’, whether it improperly asks about matters other than secession and whether the result represents ‘a clear expression of a will by a clear majority of the population’, though it does not establish what ‘clear expression’ or ‘clear majority’ mean.

There are advantages to such a legislative instrument. By being specific and vague in just the right measure, the Act gives the Commons an effective veto on any attempt to split from Canada. The Parti Québécois, which a quarter-century ago almost split Canada, now languishes as the smallest party in the Quebec National Assembly.

By putting beyond all doubt that only Westminster can grant lawful referendums on independence, a UK Clarity Act could deliver a fatal blow to the SNP.

Sturgeon could no longer keep her political coalition together by promising another referendum, and divisions between those committed to finding a legal route and those demanding a unilateral declaration of independence could severely damage the SNP.

However, there is a danger that a Clarity Act would be seen as anti-nationalist rather than pro-unionist, focused on hindering secession rather than strengthening the Union. A law that says ‘you can’t do that’ instead of ‘here is what we can do if we stick together’ might stir up as much nationalist sentiment as it dispels.

That is why I favour a more ambitious, 21st-century Act of Union that reforms devolution while respecting local decision-making and addressing the flaws in the Union that have seen it weakened so grievously. A new Act of Union could keep the UK together while recognising the legitimate (and even Union-enhancing) clamour for a less centralised state.

There is a risk, too, that a Clarity Act inadvertently becomes a blueprint for independence, by prescribing a series of tests which a devolved government must meet in order to achieve a breakaway.

The current constitutional hodge-podge leaves open the possibility of a nasty judicial shock if the matter went to court, but the ambiguity it creates can be useful. If the SNP knows what it must do to get independence, it becomes easier to get.

There is another, unpleasant consideration. Specifying in law that an unsanctioned referendum is unlawful — or even criminal — places an onus on Westminster to enforce the law if a future SNP First Minister decided to call it anyway. (I say a future First Minister because I cannot see Nicola Sturgeon taking such a radical path).

While the law might have been on Madrid’s side in 2017, its handling of the crisis is something no one should want to see repeated here. Police Scotland, in particular, would be placed in an invidious position, as would local authorities.

No state is obliged to conspire in its own dissolution and the UK is entitled to erect every lawful barrier to that eventuality. The question is how to go about it. 

A Clarity Act is not the clean fix its advocates believe but, in the absence of any appetite for more fundamental constitutional reform, some Unionists may decide it is the only way forward.

*****

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol] dailymail.co.uk. Feature images © UK Government by Creative Commons 2.0, flipped horizontally, and © Scottish Government by Creative Commons 2.0, flipped horizontally; collaged.

Rumpole of the Baillie shines in FMQs courtroom drama

Jackie Baillie, the Helensburgh Hitwoman, takes out her targets cleanly. Dumbarton’s answer to Liam Neeson, she has a very particular set of skills and occasionally uses them on someone other than the Labour Left.

Yesterday, it was Nicola Sturgeon and whether she contravened ministerial rules, a matter under consideration by Irish QC James Hamilton. 

‘If the First Minister is found to have breached the ministerial code, will she resign?’ enquired Baillie, who is a member of the separate Holyrood inquiry. 

‘That is the Jackie Baillie who is not prejudging the outcome of the process,’ Sturgeon sulked. When Hamilton reports, she said, ’people can ask me that question and I will set out what I intend to do’. 

Prosecutor Baillie warned the accused that she ‘cannot simply ignore the ministerial code’ and reminded her that though she ‘claimed to have forgotten’ about a ‘fleeting’ chat with a former Salmond aide, ‘the meeting was pre-arranged for the specific purpose of discussing the complaints that were made against Alex Salmond’.

The Labour MSP quoted Paragraph 1.3(c) of the code with the theatrics of a canny QC closing in on a dubious witness. Rumpole of the Baillie repeated her interrogative: ‘I ask again: if the First Minister is found to have breached the ministerial code, will she resign?’

‘I do not believe that I did breach the ministerial code,’ Sturgeon protested, ‘so I will not engage with that hypothetical question.’ She affected an air of cool assurance but it was evident she was not enjoying this. 

Baillie suggested She Who Must Not Be Questioned ought to be under the microscope for more than the narrow terms of the Hamilton inquiry, underscoring the rule that ministers must pay heed to legal advice. 

Once more unto the breach: ’I ask again: if the First Minister is found to have breached the ministerial code, will she resign?’

‘I think that Jackie Baillie should decide whether she is really open-minded, objective and impartial on the matter or whether she has prejudged the issue,’ Sturgeon smeared, adding in self-pity: ‘I am entitled to due process and I do not need lectures on democracy from Jackie Baillie.’

Baillie resumed her seat having recorded the strongest Labour performance at FMQs in some time. Since 2017 to be exact.

Now, a cynic would say this is all academic, because the Hamilton inquiry is not going to find against Sturgeon. No politician volunteers for a probe likely to conclude that they’re a rotter. Even so, her integrity is under scrutiny like never before. 

Keith Brown, who became SNP deputy leader three years ago and hasn’t been heard from since, popped up with a dig at the UK Government’s Union Unit posing as a question.

This had not a jot to do with the responsibilities of the Scottish Government but it was nodded through by Presiding Officer Ken Macintosh, who seems to think Ultra Vires is an Eighties synth-pop band fronted by Midge Ure. 

‘If the Scottish Government had an independence unit in such a way, there would be howls of protest from the Conservatives,’ Sturgeon harrumphed. 

If the Scottish Government did anything other than agitate for independence, most Conservatives would need their jaws mechanically hoisted from the floor. 

Maureen Watt haltingly read a question on dualling the A9 clearly written down for her, even referring to the First Minister by the shorthand ‘FM’. A consistently hopeless minister, Watt has settled in well to her backbench role as I Can’t Believe It’s Not James Dornan. If you replaced her with a low-maintenance houseplant, the quality of debate would actually go up. 

None of the inquiries is likely to topple Sturgeon, something for which we should be grateful. For all her faults, it could be so much worse. Just look behind her. 

*****

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol] dailymail.co.uk.

One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a straight answer…

Can I ask, Mr Murrell: is there anybody in the room with you?’

For a moment, I thought I had tuned into an impromptu Holyrood seance instead of the harassment committee. Jackie Baillie was giving SNP high heid yin Peter Murrell a forensic once-over via Zoom when she abruptly objected: ‘You keep looking off to the left.’

Once a Blairite, always a Blairite. 

Murrell typically has the look of a bank manager searching for a pen but his face was now contorted in confusion. He maintained there was no one there and even offered to turn the camera around to prove it, telling Baillie it was ‘quite a conspiracy you’re suggesting’. 

I’d like to think there was a shadow-cloaked Nicola Sturgeon in the corner making her way through a 20-pack of Marlboro Lights like the Cigarette-Smoking Man in the X-Files. If any government could cover up the existence of little green men, it’s this lot.

‘There’s a magpie outside, but apart from that— in fact, there’s two now,’ Murrell updated the committee, like a particularly shifty David Attenborough. 

One for sorrow, two for joy… The nursery rhyme doesn’t specify how many portend the coming of a straight answer, but it’s safe to say Mr Murrell did not have a quorum with him. 

‘Well, I’m glad there’s two because it’s unlucky if there’s only one,’ chirped convener Linda Fabiani, as though this wasn’t the most bizarre committee session in the history of devolution. 

My granny, God rest her, used to greet the solitary creatures with a salutation of: ‘Hello, Mr Magpie, how’s your wife and weans?’ in hopes of warding off misfortune, and it’s a source of pride to learn that she therefore possessed all the necessary qualifications to sit on a Holyrood committee. 

The rest of Baillie’s questioning was less esoteric, though the same didn’t go for Murrell’s answers. She pressed him on previous assurances that there were no other text messages relating to Alex Salmond. 

‘You asked whether there was any relevant information and there wasn’t — and there still isn’t,’ he replied, with an emphasis on ‘relevant’ that you could have weighed in kilograms. 

‘No, I didn’t ask about other relevant information. I asked if there were other text messages that related to the allegations made about Alex Salmond.’

‘Column 24 of my oral evidence, from yourself: “No other relevant information was found. Can you repeat that under oath?” and I said that was my evidence.’

He knew the column number. A very well-prepared witness. 

‘That’s not the only place, with respect Mr Murrell, that I asked you that,’ she demurred with a smile that would freeze the Sahara. 

Proceedings had kicked off with deputy convener Margaret Mitchell struggling to read her question. Considering she appeared to have it written down, it was not the most auspicious start.

Alex Cole-Hamilton, turned out in an open-neck shirt and snazzy blazer, looking for all the world like a mid-ranking finalist in a sparsely attended George Clooney lookalike contest, smouldered in frustration throughout his questions. 

When Murdo Fraser got his chance, all pretence of bonhomie was gone. The Tory has a dark past — he is a former solicitor — and he put his training to good use, reminding Murrell that he had previously told the committee both that he was not home during his wife’s meetings with Alex Salmond and that, on one occasion, he ‘arrived home not long before the meeting ended’. 

‘You have given this committee, under oath, two different accounts of the meeting of April 2… Which of these accounts is true and which is false?’

‘When you’re giving evidence and you’re being questioned in this fashion, it is difficult to go back to the point of what you knew when and take it back what I know now as opposed to what I knew back then,’ Murrell explained. Perhaps the magpies could translate. 

Chunks of the session were lost to a whirring garble as Murrell and Fraser attempted to talk over each other. These sections of Murrell’s testimony really stood out from the rest. They were unintelligible by accident. 

*****

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol] dailymail.co.uk.

Separate state? I’m more worried about a failed state

Everyone agrees: no one understands. At least that is the consensus on the Alex Salmond affair within the political and media bubble. The general public, so the thinking runs, finds the whole saga so bafflingly labyrinthine that they zone out when the story pops up in the newspaper. 

There is, MSPs and journalists lament, no snappy, one-sentence summation that everyone can understand. 

Here is that sentence: Nicola Sturgeon’s government unlawfully investigated Alex Salmond for sexual harassment and his supporters believe this was part of a plot to wreck his reputation and any hope of a return to frontline politics. I make no comment on the plausibility of the latter contention but that is the simplest precis possible of a complex drama. 

Even without talk of a conspiracy, the charges against the Scottish Government are serious. Ministers admit they botched a probe into the accusations. The Court of Session ruled that it was ‘procedurally unfair’ on the grounds that the investigating officer had ‘prior involvement’. More than £500,000 in taxpayers’ money has been shelled out to meet Salmond’s legal bills. The Holyrood inquiry is meant to get to the bottom of all this. 

The committee’s biggest test so far comes tomorrow, when Salmond is due to give evidence in person. His appearance is reportedly in peril after the inquiry’s refusal to publish a written submission in which he accused Nicola Sturgeon of misleading parliament.

The document, originally prepared for the separate review by James Hamilton, QC, into whether Sturgeon broke the ministerial code, claims the First Minister was aware a meeting with Salmond at her home on April 2, 2018 had been arranged to discuss complaints against him. This appears to contradict Sturgeon’s version of events and raises questions about her failure to disclose details of the meeting to civil servants until two months later. 

If Salmond does not appear tomorrow, such doubts as might remain will vanish. The inquiry will not warrant public confidence in its eventual conclusions. I believe we have already reached that point, which is why I have called for a judge-led public inquiry to ascertain the facts about the allegations, the Scottish Government’s investigation, and the obstruction of the Holyrood committee.

Should the committee forgo Salmond’s in-person evidence rather than place his written submission in the public domain, the only course of action for committee members who object is to resign in protest. They have done their best but even their best was never going to surmount the structural flaws of an inquiry too toothless to make ministers fear its bark, let alone its bite.

I objected to the terms of the inquiry from the outset and nothing since has changed my mind. An investigation into the SNP, set up by the SNP and chaired by the SNP was never going to cut muster with anyone except the SNP.

If the inquiry does not hear from Salmond, it does not deserve to be heard itself. Its findings will amount to little more than a stern ticking-off for the Scottish Government and a hollow promise in return that ‘lessons will be learned’.

Indeed they will be. Ministers will learn the lesson that the Scottish Parliament is a paper tiger, unable or unwilling to hold the executive to account. They will learn that they may act unlawfully and incur costly legal fees for the taxpayer without censure. They will learn that they are above the parliament and the law.

The Hamilton inquiry has yet to report but if it proves as robust as its Holyrood analogue, ministers might also learn that they are above the ministerial code.

There is something very dangerous bubbling up. We are governed by people who see their power as untrammelled and their duty to the office as marginal. They are the SNP, not the Scottish Government. No less troubling is the fatalism this has inspired in the other parties, who look at Sturgeon’s poll ratings and throw their hands up in despair. We’ve had more than enough of Eeyore opposition. We need to see some energy, ideas and, frankly, guts from those tasked with bringing ministers to book.

Some nationalists who feel uneasy about how the Sturgeon government has conducted itself still suspect ill-motive on the part of the opposition. Opportunism is a constant in politics but the stakes are much higher than that. This is about the integrity of government in Scotland, something that should compel nationalists at least as much as unionists.

Whatever your view on the constitutional question, were Scotland to become an independent country we should all want it to be a gold-standard nation for process, accountability and the rule of law. We should not slide in between Saudi Arabia and Senegal at the UN General Assembly under a cloud of uncertainty about what kind of country we are.

This is why supporters of independence should resist the urge to suppress their misgivings. A government that can behave like this within the constraints of the United Kingdom will not volunteer to improve its conduct after those constraints are removed. If you allow people who consider themselves above the law to set up a new state, don’t expect that state to put much stock in the rule of law.

These days, I am less worried about Scotland becoming a separate state than I am about it becoming a failed state. A country in which the government can investigate itself, in which the Crown Office refuses to hand over documents to Holyrood until forced to, and in which parliament cannot keep the executive in check is a country with deeper problems than vaccine distribution. It is a country that is democratically dysfunctional.

If Linda Fabiani’s inquiry cannot do its job, then a judge must take over, but that cannot be the end of the matter. We must face up to the flaws in the devolution settlement that allowed this charade and take remedial action to prevent it happening again. Scotland must be able to hold its head up high in the world.

*****

‘Do as I say, not as I do’ is the first and oldest principle in politics. The Scottish Tories are lashing Labour leadership hopeful Anas Sarwar for refusing to back an ‘anti-SNP coalition’, claiming he ‘would rather work with the SNP than work with unionist parties’.

Imagine. What kind of Unionist would do that? Well, um, the Scottish Tories. In 2007 the SNP won one seat more than Labour at the Holyrood elections but the parties of unity handily outnumbered the separatists.

So what did the Tories do? They propped up Alex Salmond’s minority government, voting for his budgets in exchange for concessions on drug rehabilitation and regeneration funding. According to analysis by the Guardian, they helped the SNP defeat Labour 377 times.

To my mind, this was constructive opposition that secured cash for good causes, but it also kept the SNP in power and no doubt contributed to its 2011 majority.

It seems the Tories are only for anti-SNP coalitions when it suits them.

*****

Given the other parties’ inability to hold her to account, Scotland needs an opposition leader capable of standing up to Nicola Sturgeon. Someone who has not only read the standing orders but fully understands them. Once she’s done knocking Handforth Parish Council into shape, let’s headhunt Jackie Weaver. She would have the authority to keep the SNP in check.

*****

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol] dailymail.co.uk.

FMQs turns red, white and blue

It’s not often Nicola Sturgeon makes you proud to be British but when the leader of the SNP stands up and declares the British Army to be ‘our Armed Forces’, you do think about getting out the Union Jack bunting.

The First Minister was being pressed by Ruth Davidson on the sluggish pace of the vaccine rollout in Scotland.

‘Any help that the Armed Forces give to Scotland… it’s not a favour from the Secretary of State for Scotland,’ she told the Tory leader, before blurting out: ‘It’s our Armed Forces!’ That might not go down well in her ranks, where some still refer to the Union Flag as the Butcher’s Apron and sing about British soldiers going on home rather than coming on in.

Still, if Nicola Sturgeon is going to hymn the efforts of squaddies helping her government get caught up with vaccinations, it would be churlish not to join in…

Some talk of Devi Sridhar
And some of Jason Leitch
Of Gregor Smith and Freeman
But the jabs are out of reach.
Of all of Sturgeon’s heroes
There’s none that can compare,
With a tow row row and a vaccine now,
From the British Grenadiers.

Meanwhile, Jackie Baillie took up the cause of vulnerable pensioners left in the dark about their Covid jab, including ‘Kate’ from Fife and ‘Margaret and Bill’, also from the Kingdom. Putting names to the Scottish Government’s failings was clever, and evidently irked Sturgeon, who rejoindered: ‘Perhaps Jackie Baillie wants to turn her mobile phone off as well while I answer her question.’

Baillie is a tough cookie and attacks are soon brushed off – and returned twofold.

In that oh-so-reasonable tone she adopts while getting stuck in about her opponents, she contended: ‘It is becoming harder to work out how the Scottish Government measures success in the vaccine programme. Our vaccine rollout is much slower than England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

‘The First Minister quite rightly says it’s not a competition between nations but I have to say to her: it is a race against the virus and we are not going fast enough.’

The interim Labour leader reminded Sturgeon of Calamity Jeane’s pledge to vaccinate one million Scots before the end of January. This was, apparently, most unsporting of her.

Sturgeon objected: ‘Jackie Baillie talks about things the Health Secretary said in November. In November, we didn’t even have an authorised vaccine for use, so we were estimating on what we thought.’

Or, to translate from the Sturgeon: ‘We didn’t have a vaccine but spun a big number anyway because I wanted some nice headlines.’

Tory MSP Liam Kerr raised the blight of shop closures in Aberdeen city centre and queried how the First Minister was going to encourage new retailers to open.

‘I’m going to resist the temptation to assume responsibility for filling individual shop units in every town and city. It is an important question and I don’t mean to minimise it,’ she said, minimising it.

As she spoke, the benches to her right rumbled in dispute.

‘Presiding Officer, I’m struggling to hear with all the chatting that’s going on,’ she protested.

‘Yes, but the trouble is, First Minister, the trouble was caused by the Deputy First Minister heckling the Labour benches, so I would encourage all members to behave themselves in this situation,’ he shot back.

Blimey. Someone had put a few quid in Ken Macintosh’s meter.

Sturgeon glanced at Swinney and broke into a giggle. ‘I will speak to him later, Presiding Officer,’ she chuckled, then admitted: ‘I have completely lost my train of thought, which probably means I should sit down.’

Macintosh called time, prompting Baillie to bound up with a dig gussied up as a point of order: ‘The First Minister said earlier that people can contact the helpline if they have questions about their vaccinations.

‘People are emailing me right now to say they’re trying and they’re not getting answers about appointments. Margaret, from Fife, who I referenced earlier, has just phoned the helpline to be told a letter will be sent soon but nobody knows when.’

No wonder Sturgeon didn’t want her looking at her phone.

*****

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol] dailymail.co.uk.

The case for a public inquiry

Sometimes there are breaking points that can’t be ignored. The inquiry into the Scottish Government’s handling of sexual harassment allegations against Alex Salmond has just suffered another low, dispiriting week.

That does not distinguish the past seven days from any others since the committee began its work but the accumulation of indignities and inadequacies has become too great to bear.

This parliamentary investigation has revealed only how weak and ill-equipped is the parliament leading it. Somehow the Scottish parliament has managed to cast more doubt on its own fitness than that of the government it is tasked with reviewing.

After months of pleading from inquiry convener Linda Fabiani, the Crown Office finally agreed to share further materials with her committee, and only after Holyrood was forced to take the unprecedented step of invoking its powers under the Scotland Act to demand sight of the documents.

The materials it sought were not minor in their nature. They included any digital communications between the chief operating officer of the SNP and the Scottish Government, and any documents germane to the 2018 disclosure to a newspaper of harassment complaints against Salmond.

Only now, in the dying days of this probe, have the MSPs nominally running it been given access to these productions.

There are conscientious MSPs on the inquiry and they have done much and very creditable work to get to the truth. But their efforts have been hindered by the nature of the committee itself.

Of the nine current members, seven have no legal education or training, including the convener. They ask questions that parliamentarians would ask, some of which are incisive but most of which lack the necessary forensic depth and interrogative nous.

Lawyers can be a nuisance but they are a valuable nuisance. They know what questions to ask, of whom, in what order, and how to elicit answers – or damn the witness who fails to provide them. They do not greet forgetfulness or inconsistent evidence with arched eyebrows and exasperated sighs.

They are adversarial because, in their profession, what is at stake is typically a person’s liberty or reputation or the doing of justice itself. Law is not a process that can end in wrung hands and focus-grouped apologies.

The respected legal academic Alistair Bonnington notes a ‘strong suspicion that this committee was given the job precisely because it would have insufficient expertise or powers to investigate adequately’.

Professor Bonnington is not alone in this view among legal experts. The committee appears not only to be fatally flawed but flawed in such a way as to raise questions about the motive behind establishing a parliamentary probe rather than a more robust inquiry.

Whatever the diligence of its members, this inquiry is not robust. It has previously had to suspend its activities because of what it termed ‘obstruction’.

The First Minister who promised to ‘fully co-operate with the committee and its inquiry’ has instead tendered evidence arising from a ‘forgotten’ meeting and at odds with the evidence of SNP chief executive (and her husband) Peter Murrell.

Her government has refused to hand over its legal advice and to let witnesses appear. Where it has come before the panel, it has repeatedly had to revise its evidence despite having spent £55,000 ‘preparing’ civil servants to appear.

The Holyrood inquiry has already failed before it has concluded. In truth, it had failed even before it began. Every day — or, more specifically, every Tuesday — that MSPs continue to participate in these empty theatrics is another day in which we get further from, not closer to, the truth of what happened.

A faulty process does more than fail to reach a just outcome; it makes it more difficult for a thorough process, at some point down the line, to do so either. Poisoned roots can only ever produce poisonous fruits.

The only way forward is for the Holyrood inquiry to be dissolved and for parliament to pass legislation requiring ministers to establish a judge-led public inquiry into this entire saga.

This is not about party politics or the constitution. It is no longer simply about Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon. It is about public confidence in the integrity of government in Scotland.

The nature of what is being alleged — or at least heavily implied — is impossible to overstate. In his most recent submission, Salmond claims to have a witness who was told by a special adviser in 2018 ‘the government knew they would lose the judicial review but that they would “get him” [i.e. Salmond] in the criminal case’.

Salmond loyalist and East Lothian MP Kenny MacAskill asserts the existence of a secret WhatsApp group — nicknamed ‘Vietnam’ — in which senior SNP figures allegedly discussed ‘putting pressure’ on one complainer to give evidence against the former party leader at his criminal trial, at which he was cleared of all charges. MacAskill claims the group chat discussed how to get the complainer ‘back in the game’.

In its simplest and most emphatic terms, the proposition here is that the Scottish Government conspired politically against the former First Minister and employed the apparatus of the state to carry out its plot.

The mere insinuation, regardless of its veracity or otherwise, is incendiary. The implications were such a narrative to be confirmed, or given the impression of confirmation, would be to make Watergate look like a two-bit hotel burglary by comparison.

The Scottish parliament is not capable of reaching the truth in this matter. Information central to the events under investigation, information without which it is impossible to fully understand what is alleged to have happened, cannot be divulged to the general public.

Much of the evidence heard would be better assessed by those learned in the law. A public inquiry could be given an expanded remit beyond the narrow terms set for the Holyrood committee. It could interrogate all sides and all evidence with the rigour that has been lacking so far. It could give the public confidence with a process that is robust, disinterested and unbound by parliamentary timetables or political considerations.

Fabiani’s committee has reached a breaking point and so has the indulgence the rest of parliament can continue to grant it. An inquiry designed as an exercise in damage limitation cannot and will not get to the bottom of the events in question. Not because the committee members do not want to but because the scope of the process is too restrictive.

Much about this inquiry seems recondite to the public and far removed from their everyday concerns, especially in the middle of a pandemic. But neither public apathy nor legal complexity should stand in the way of answering this most vital of questions: are public officials in Scotland above accountability and even the law itself?

The answer must be ‘No’ but the only forum in which it can be ensured is a public inquiry.

*****

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol] dailymail.co.uk. Feature image: collage of images © Scottish Government by Creative Commons 2.0.