It was the faintest crease, there and gone again. As SNP chief executive Peter Murrell gave evidence to the Alex Salmond inquiry, a hairline fracture of contempt cleaved across his mouth. Some committee members found his statements inconsistent, others incredible, and they said so, but Murrell was cool, unfazed, in control.
Nicola Sturgeon was just as businesslike two days later at First Minister’s Questions. When Ruth Davidson raised the matter, Sturgeon rejoindered: ‘I do not gossip about those things, even to my husband. I am the First Minister of the country, not the office gossip.’
As though the issues in question were watercooler scuttlebutt or a rumour about the annual Christmas party.
The SNP leader then insinuated that the Scottish Conservatives’ Holyrood leader was getting personal. ‘I understand why Ruth Davidson wants to drag my husband into these matters but the fact is that he had no role,’ she told MSPs. Suddenly, it was not the couple running the country from their breakfast table at fault, but those suggesting this might not be democratically healthy.
On paper, last week should have been exacting for the Sturgeon-Murrell enterprise. Scotland’s cloistered co-ruler dragged into the light to answer questions and his spouse interrogated on the tenor of his answers. In reality, never were two people more poised or self-assured. When the powerful do not fear mechanisms of accountability, there is either something wrong with the powerful or with the mechanisms.
Sturgeon and Murrell’s rise to power is a story of failed mechanisms and faulty institutions. Scotland goes through long periods as a dominant-party system. As the dominant party tightens its governing monopoly, the less chance there is of it being defeated and the less need for it to listen to opposing views. It grows complacent, arrogant and the democratic muscles atrophy. In the 19th century it was the Liberals; in the 20th century, Scottish Labour; today, it is the SNP.
The difference now is that there is a devolved legislature in Edinburgh. This ought to disrupt single-party dominance thanks to a more proportional voting system and an end to the narrative of Scotland done down by England. Public attention should have shifted from the constitutional question to matters of tax, spending and policy choices. The practice of devolution has been very different from the theory.
Sturgeon wields so much power because the parliament wields so little. It is an anaemic institution, with whips dictating committee convenorships and an inquiry into the Scottish Government brought to a halt whenever it elects not to co-operate. Even with an ill-structured parliament like Holyrood, MSPs should be able to see off attempts at executive overreach, but they rarely do because of a dysfunctional political culture.
Nationalist MSPs do not behave as a parliamentary party but rather a bloc vote directed by the leader’s office. Cross-party co-operation is plentiful on low-level issues but when ministers make up their minds, it is highly unlikely any of their backbenchers will defy them. Whip-breaking is vanishingly uncommon.
The consequences are more than philosophical. The UK Government was paralysed for two years after falling into minority status; the SNP, in the minority since 2016, governs as though it held a majority. Because the executive is strong, committees weak and backbenchers compliant, bad laws stand a greater chance of making it onto the books.
Accountability becomes nigh on impossible in such circumstances. The Salmond hearings show this. An inquiry into how the SNP leader’s government investigated complaints against her predecessor is chaired by an Nationalist MSP and former ministerial colleague of both. Linda Fabiani is a solid deputy presiding officer but hardly known for a lively streak of independence from her own party.
She has spoken out against obstruction of her committee but withholding of documents, ministerial memory lapses and refusals of witness requests are a testament to what the SNP thinks of an inquiry chaired by one of its own.
Other checks and balances that are absent from Scottish politics are a strong opposition, adversarial broadcasters and an independent civil society.
Of the four opposition parties at Holyrood, three are hopelessly divided and a fourth sees its job as propping up the government rather than putting it under pressure. BBC Scotland, which sustained years of malicious allegations from nationalists, does not interrogate the Scottish government with a skerrick of the robust cynicism that its London counterparts do the UK Government. Meanwhile, third-sector bodies have been captured by nationalist ideology.
This is what it looks like when your country is run by untouchables. Untouchables are not always created by shoddy political infrastructure but it always helps their rise to the top.
The reason for checks and balances is to protect democracy from itself. It cannot be enough that a party has a majority; its actions must be regulated to serve a larger idea of democracy. Checks and balances are like police who direct drivers when traffic lights fail. That permanently green light might tell oncoming vehicles they have right-of-way but there has to be a mechanism to stop them abusing their advantage.
Why are Nicola Sturgeon and Peter Murrell so confident? Because this inquiry’s findings may come and go, but they will most likely remain. In a dominant-party system, whoever dominates the party dominates entirely.
Maybe you think, per the Prime Minister, devolution is a ‘disaster’. Perhaps you reckon it is what Scotland needs. You may even believe in independence. No matter where you sit on the political or constitutional spectrum, you have an interest in making the system work better than this. Government by untouchables is what got us where we are today.
Scotland’s chattering classes do so like to chatter and lately they’ve been chattering about little else besides Brexit. It’s going to lead to independence, don’t you know? Nationalists gloat about it. Devolutionists rail against the Tories for not heeding their warnings. Even some Unionists wring their hands and imagine the worst.
Their analysis may be right. I still think Brexit a terrible idea but democracy a marginally better one. The UK voted to leave and so we have left.
Boris Johnson’s government has played fast and loose with the Union and deserves all the criticism it gets. But I have three questions for the chatterers:
1) How terrible an idea is independence that its main selling point is not being another terrible idea?
2) How devoid of ideas are devolutionists that they have failed to present an appealing alternative to these two ideas?
3) Do Unionists have a convincing case for the Union, and are they planning to make it any time soon?
A Tory in an industry of luvvies, Barbara Windsor, who died last week, sometimes had to mind her political Ps and Qs. Promoting a play with Vanessa Redgrave in 1972, Windsor admitted: ‘I’ve always voted Conservative… Of course, we all know Vanessa’s a raving socialist, but she’s a lovely girl, so you just don’t mention Edward Heath in her company.’
Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: firstname.lastname@example.org.