Witness for the prosecutors

QUESTIONS: James Wolffe QC appeared before Holyrood on Wednesday.

The Lord Advocate appeared before the Scottish Parliament on February 24, 2021 to answer questions on the redaction of Alex Salmond’s evidence to the Holyrood inquiryThis is the text of my Scottish Daily Mail sketch of proceedings. 

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James Wolffe QC cuts a bashful, owlish figure, more suited to an academic symposium than the Holyrood bear pit. The Lord Advocate had been summoned to answer an urgent question by Jackie Baillie, an increasingly frustrated member of the Salmond inquiry. 

Following Tuesday’s debacle, in which the Scottish Parliament redacted Alex Salmond’s written evidence at the behest of the Crown Office, Baillie wanted to know whether Wolffe had been ‘consulted’ about the action. 

Up came this slight, bespectacled character to reply: ‘No, I was not. The decisions in relation to this matter were made by senior professional prosecutors acting independently, as they always do, and without reference to the law officers.’

He is that peculiarly Scottish brand of posh — Dumfriesshire posh — but spoke in the familiar cadences of establishment Edinburgh. His vowels seemed to rise and thumb their lapels before announcing themselves and his ‘S’s whistled in sibilant defiance of a tongue that regularly darted forth to moisten his lips. 

‘Can I take the opportunity to add this: Scotland’s public prosecutors take difficult decisions which some may find unpopular. They take those decisions objectively, professionally and in the public interest, and they act independently of any other person.’

His tone was curling sour, a streak of defensiveness creeping in. 

Of course, defensiveness will do you no good with Jackie Baillie. She could get the Dalai Lama to confess to being Jack the Ripper with three questions and a supplementary.

Baillie accepted that Wolffe had not been consulted but ‘was he aware of what was going on?’ Moreover, ‘did the Crown Office receive any submissions from any third party’ before writing to the parliament? And, she pressed, ‘did this even go across your desk before it had been issued?’

‘I received a copy of the letter for my information after it had been issued,’ he replied crisply, and sat back down.

The terse response didn’t cut muster with Baillie.

‘I note the Lord Advocate didn’t answer any of my previous questions, and I’m sure he might want to take the opportunity in answer to my next question to go back and cover the stuff he didn’t answer before.’

Her voice was cheery, her meaning deadly clear: don’t get lawyerly with me, mate. 

She reminded him that, when the matter was before the High Court, the Crown Office objected to just one paragraph of Salmond’s evidence. What had changed?

‘I’m not going to get into the substance of the issues here, not least because in doing so there would be a risk myself in breaching the court order,’ he told her. Lawyerly it was going to be. 

‘Fundamentally,’ he continued, ‘what’s at issue here is an order by the High Court, handed down to protect the anonymity of complainers. The Crown’s sole interest in this matter is to secure respect for that court order.’

That Baillie was not satisfied with this response was evident from a press release she promptly fired off: ‘It is simply unacceptable that the Lord Advocate refused to answer the questions put to him with any detail.’

Wolffe’s performance was halting and unlikely to have convinced anyone troubled by the Crown Office’s intervention.

Thankfully, though, the SNP’s undeterrable Tom Arthur was on hand. After five years at Holyrood, ministerial office continues to elude him with a consistency that suggests determination. However, he offered himself in the role of amicus advocatus — Lord Advocate hauners.

He lamented ‘misinformation being spread’ about the office, recounted its origins prior to the Union of Crowns, and invited Wolffe to agree that previous Lord Advocates had been members of the Scottish cabinet. 

‘I’m not entirely sure it’s quite following the urgent question today,’ the presiding officer demurred, ‘but I will allow the Lord Advocate to make a brief response to that history lesson from Mr Arthur.’

Ken Macintosh turns savage. Truly, it was an unprecedented day.

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

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