A government without rules

TESTIMONY: Nicola Sturgeon gives evidence to the Holyrood inquiry.

This is the text of my Scottish Daily Mail column for Monday, March 22, 2021.

*****

The final week before parliamentary recess typically has a last-day-of-term feel. When there’s an election in the offing, the focus is on tying up legislative loose ends and gathering for retiring rivals’ valedictory speeches. 

After five years of knocking lumps out of one another, old enemies conspire over cups of tea in the canteen, gossiping about strategies, blackening the names of parties’ rising stars and pronouncing on who is a safe bet to be returned and who’s had their electoral chips. 

There will be none of that this week. Not just because Covid-19 has made getting together for a cuppa a hanging offence but because this week the fate of Nicola Sturgeon hangs in the balance. The First Minister will receive the conclusions of the Holyrood inquiry into her government’s handling of complaints against her predecessor, mentor and arch-enemy Alex Salmond. 

We already know the committee will say she misled MSPs in her evidence, a revelation which has prompted Sturgeon’s office and some SNP members to trash the panel in advance of its report. 

She will also learn from the independent adviser, former Irish prosecutor James Hamilton, whether he deems her to have violated the ministerial code. It stipulates: ‘Ministers who knowingly mislead the parliament will be expected to offer their resignation’ and Sturgeon has already vowed to ‘lead by example in following the letter and spirit of this code’.

Her statements in recent days and weeks suggest the First Minister is exceptionally confident that Hamilton’s findings will be favourable to her. For whatever reason, she evidently believes this inquiry will allow her to cling on. 

All this will come to a head on Wednesday, the final sitting day, the final opportunity for the Scottish parliament to demonstrate that it is capable of holding the executive to account. 

It is a parliament thoroughly poisoned by events of the past few years. More partisan and tribal than ever before, more bitter and unforgiving.

Even the wiser heads in all the parties are angrier and more vengeful than I have ever heard them. It is hard to imagine these sentiments will not be carried over into the next parliament. That will have implications for cross-party co-operation and even the ability of committees to function properly.

These will be frantic days and with good reason. The questions that loom over the First Minister are the most serious imaginable. They go to whether she told the truth, whether she abused her power, whether we can trust her.

The people for whom Sturgeon is the centre of their universe will already have made their minds up. The nationalists who greet her every word like a papal bull, the anti-nationalists in whose heads she resides rent-free — neither will be swayed from the conviction that she is either Mother Teresa or Freddy Krueger. The rest of the country is more interested in getting to the bottom of what happened, what Sturgeon knew, when she knew it, and what she did. 

The Holyrood inquiry was not designed to address all these questions — one might say it was designed not to address them — but it will give some indication. The same applies to the Hamilton inquiry. There should have been — and ought still to be — an independent, judge-led public inquiry into the whole affair but, in the absence of one, the findings returned this week will be the best we can do.

If they are damning, pressure will grow on Sturgeon from within her own ranks to step down for the good of the Government and the party. If they are inconclusive, the stench will hang over her throughout the election and into her next term of government. The latter outcome is what Sturgeon’s camp will fear the most because it would function as a sort of ‘not proven’ verdict, acquitting the First Minister without exonerating her.

In their desperation to avoid this outcome, Sturgeon and the taxpayer-funded hatchet men who run her spin operation have tried to portray this as a matter of being either on her side or Salmond’s.

I, like many others, am on neither side. I regard both of them as indolent narcissists whose relentless egotism and naked power-hunger have set this country back decades. If you are poor, if you are a child struggling at school, if you are on a waiting list, if you suffer mental ill-health — if you need a government more committed to changing your material conditions than changing the colour of cloth up a flagpole — almost any government would have been an improvement on this one. You are not their priority and you’re never going to be.

Salmond and Sturgeon may be at odds these days — after years of being inseparable, years we are now expected to flush down the memory hole — but the reason they worked together so well for so long is that they are strikingly similar politicians. Dreams above circumstances. Party above country. Self above everything. Rotten peas in the same rotten pod.

There is no need to choose between them. It is perfectly possible to reject both. Scotland would be a much better place if we had in 2007.

This week is not about taking sides. It is about the proper conduct of government, ministers and civil servants. We can demand answers about these matters without being drawn into the Sturgeon-Salmond psychodrama.

It is essential that answers are forthcoming because of the scale of what has been alleged. All political parties have factions. All governments have internal struggles. Not all political parties use the apparatus of government to wage internal struggle; not all governments accept commissions from political parties to act as factional score-settlers. This is, ultimately, what the SNP and the Scottish Government are accused of and, if the charges have any foundation, the implications could not be graver.

Judgment awaits the First Minister and her government, but there is something else on trial: devolution. Even before seeing the Holyrood or Hamilton inquiries, we know that this administration has conducted itself without regard to the law or proper process.

The details of the internal investigation into Salmond were leaked to a newspaper by persons unknown. No one resigned. No one was fired.

Salmond’s one-time chief of staff says the identity of a complainant was revealed to him, an allegation corroborated by three witnesses. No one resigned. No one was fired.

Sturgeon met Salmond during the investigation and failed to inform civil servants for two months. No one resigned. No one was fired.

The Scottish Government pressed ahead with its case in a judicial review despite increasingly stark legal advice to the contrary. No one resigned. No one was fired.

No minutes were taken during pivotal meetings between the Scottish Government and external counsel, including one at which the First Minister was present. No one resigned. No one was fired.

The late disclosure of documents caused the government’s QCs, through no fault of their own, to give assurances to the Court of Session that were false. No one resigned. No one was fired. 

The court ruled the government had behaved in a manner ‘unlawful’, ‘procedurally unfair’, and ‘tainted by apparent bias’. No one resigned. No one was fired.

The taxpayer was forced to pay more than £500,000 in legal costs to Salmond. No one resigned. No one was fired.

Despite the First Minister’s pledge to ‘fully co-operate with the committee and its inquiry’, documents were withheld and witness requests denied. No one resigned. No one was fired.

Four senior civil servants had to revise their evidence after giving misleading testimony to the Holyrood inquiry. No one resigned. No one was fired. 

Some governments think they are above the rules. This one behaves as if there are no rules.

What the Scottish Government did and did not do is on the Scottish Government. What the Scottish parliament does about it is on the Scottish parliament. If all this ends in one of those ‘mistakes were made, lessons must be learned’ jobs, Holyrood will have earned the contempt with which the Scottish Government treats it. It will have confirmed Sir Billy Connolly’s characterisation of it as ‘a wee pretendy parliament’, and worse: a wee fearty one. 

Nicola Sturgeon’s political future, and that of her government, are on the line this week, but so too is any political system incapable of or unwilling to bring them to book.

*****

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

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