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.